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Was that this year?! A round-up of all the government scandals of 2021

From opaque PPE contracts to lockdown-breaking ministers, it’s been a bumper year for government scandals. Here’s your 2021 digest of them all.

It’s fair to say that 2021 was a turbulent year for most. Opening with a third lockdown that made millions of people finally lose their minds, (yes, Jackie Weaver happened this year) the remaining months were spent in a near-perpetual state of uncertainty about Covid restrictions, testing and rules.

Yet there was, of course, one thing that could be relied on for total consistency all year long: government sleaze and scandals. 

If 2021 was the year of anything, it was surely the year in which the government figured out that so long as you keep piling additional crises, scandals and sleaze on top of the previous crises, scandals and sleaze, the public will be unable to keep up. 

So at the close of the year, what could be more fun or festive than taking a trip down memory lane and revisiting all the scandals that hounded the government in 2021? 

From £200m yachts to illegal bike rides and CCTV footage of the former Health Secretary snogging a colleague during lockdown, here’s your 2021 digest. 

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January

Ah, January. Famously the month which is so long, cold and dark that a marketing agency invented an entire day (‘Blue Monday’) to dwell on how depressed everyone feels at this time of year. 

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Luckily, in 2021, we had a full lockdown of indeterminate length to cheer us up as hospitals up and down the country struggled to cope with a fresh surge in coronavirus infections. Happy New Year! 

Perhaps embarking on a health kick after a busy Christmas, (more on that later) the prime minister faced his first 2021 accusation of breaching lockdown rules this month after cycling seven miles from his home in Downing Street.

At the time, guidance dictated that people should not travel outside of their local area to exercise. 

Shortly after this, a scandal exploded online after pictures of free school meal “hampers” containing pitiful amounts of food were posted online by struggling parents.

In what is surely an indication of a well-functioning country, it took a third intervention by 23-year-old footballer Marcus Rashford to pressure the government into providing proper nutrition for the nation’s children, with a voucher scheme introduced in late January.

February 

As the pandemic raged on, February saw the High Court rule that the government broke the law in 2020 over its failure to disclose details of billion-pound contracts for PPE supplies.

High Court judge Martin Chamberlain ruled then-health secretary Matt Hancock failed to comply with a public procurement law that requires the government to publish contract awards within 30 days. No resignations followed.

Chamberlain had a busy month, also presiding over a case involving the Home Office.

The hearing revealed that the Home Office had ignored advice from Public Health England not to house asylum seekers in Napier Barracks, where 120 infections were recorded a month later. 

Elsewhere, Boris Johnson was busy using taxpayer money to pay for a photoshoot of his dog, appointing his former campaign manager into a government role and raising Nicola Sturgeon’s hackles by visiting Scotland while the country was in lockdown. 

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March

By this point in the pandemic, healthcare workers up and down the country were exhausted, burnt out and traumatised.

Thankfully, the government offered overstretched NHS workers a real-terms pay cut as a token of gratitude, with a 1 per cent pay rise falling generously below the rate of inflation for 2021. Following public backlash, this was later increased to 3 per cent in July. 

PMs past and present found themselves embroiled in some of the first big sleaze scandals of the year, with David Cameron investigated over unregistered lobbying conducted on behalf of Greensill Capital

The current government was accused of treating British taxpayers “like an ATM machine” by the Public Accounts Committee over failed pandemic projects like test and trace which wasted “billions of pounds” of public money.

In late March, Jennifer Arcuri alleged an affair with Boris Johnson during his time as mayor of London, raising questions about public money she was awarded during Johnson’s time in the post.

April 

April was a bumper month for Boris Johnson, with leaked texts between the PM and James Dyson revealing Johnson had promised to change tax rules to allow Dyson to make more ventilators for the UK.

Former aide Dominic Cummings was blamed for the leak, and retaliated with a scathing blog post about Johnson, claiming the PM tried to quash an internal inquiry into who was leaking information to the press due to a friend of his current wife, Carrie Symonds, being implicated. 

Cummings also alleged the PM sought outside donor funding to refurbish his flat without properly declaring it, breaking standards rules. 

Just days later, the Electoral Commission launched an official investigation into the funding of the refurb, which reportedly cost £58k.

In a further flattering portrait of the PM, Johnson’s alleged “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” comment was reported by the national press. 

In a convincing denial of the comment, the PM then visited the Covid Memorial Wall under the cover of night, rejecting repeated invitations from the Covid bereaved to walk the wall alongside them. 

May 

You might think that the middle of a pandemic-induced economic downturn would be a strange time for the government to commission a multi-million pound yacht – but you’d be wrong!

In May, Johnson announced a new national flagship as a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia at the cost of £200 million.

Meanwhile, government sleaze accusations were following each other in such quick succession that many got buried before people caught wind of them.

Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused of a “flagrant breach” of the ministerial code after lobbying for a PPE deal on behalf of a healthcare firm, while Hancock helped a disgraced former minister secure a PPE contract worth £180m

Leaked emails also revealed that Hancock had been warned about the dangers of discharging hospital patients into care homes during the first wave of the pandemic, but failed to act on the advice. 

During this first wave, more than 20,000 people in care homes died of coronavirus. 

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June 

In most normal jobs, it would probably be this flagrant dereliction of duty linked to the deaths of thousands of people that would get you fired, rather than, say, snogging a colleague in your office – but not so in politics. 

June was the month the entire nation was traumatised by grainy footage of Matt Hancock in a “clinch” with colleague Gina Coladangelo in May, when lockdown rules dictated that intimate contact with people outside of your own household was banned. 

After extreme public pressure and a reluctance by the PM to fire Hancock, he resigned shortly afterwards. 

This month, the UK hosted the G7 leaders summit in Cornwall. The agenda had a strong focus on climate change, so Johnson naturally took a private jet from London to Cornwall instead of the train.

Later in June, the government’s own advisers on climate change warned that ministers are failing to deliver on promises to cut emissions and curb climate change.

July 

Remember the “pingdemic”? Remember how annoying it was when the NHS app repeatedly told you to self-isolate after coming into contact with a coronavirus case? 

Conveniently enough, when the PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were themselves “pinged” by the service in July, they just so happened to be part of a pilot programme which meant they didn’t have to self-isolate.

Once again, public pressure forced a U-turn on the “pilot”, and both ministers ended up isolating.

July saw the government facing yet more sleaze scandals, with accusations including an elite Tory donors club holding secret meetings with Johnson and Sunak and a “cover-up” over the Greensill scandal. 

Johnson then took a firm stance on the allegations by appointing a former friend from the Bullingdon Club to the “sleaze watchdog”, the Committee on Standards in Public Life. 

August 

The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August left thousands of Afghan people who had assisted western powers fearing retribution from the Taliban. 

A mass evacuation operation was imminent, and thankfully, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was on the case from his holiday at a luxury resort in Crete.

Raab was accused of delaying help for interpreters who supported British troops in Afghanistan by failing to make a call regarding their evacuation. 

Holidaymakers also claimed the minister was lounging and paddleboarding as Kabul fell, accusations denied by Raab who claimed that “the sea was closed” at the time.

Boris Johnson was also away in the West Country twice throughout the crisis, in spite of sprucing up his home with two paintings costing £10,000 in total earlier in the month.

September 

September’s headlines were dominated by the gas crisis, as wholesale prices soared and smaller suppliers began to collapse. 

The government continued to be dogged by accusations of secrecy and scandal, with Johnson accused of neglecting national security, failing to dismiss Priti Patel after allegations of breaching the ministerial code and handing a life peerage and ministerial position to a financier who had donated £147,000 to the Conservative Party.

October 

Just a month ahead of the climate and environment-focused COP26 conference, MPs faced enormous public backlash after rejecting a Lords amendment to the Environment Bill which proposed strict curbs on water companies dumping untreated sewage into waterways.

A long-awaited Net Zero plan released ahead of the conference was criticised as lacking in ambition and funding, casting doubts on the UK’s ability to lead by example at the conference in November. 

Meanwhile, a report from the Health and Social Care, and Science and Technology Committees condemned the government’s early response to the pandemic as one of the “worst ever” public health failures

November 

MPs are often accused of not working hard enough, but if November taught us anything, it’s that they might be working too hard – just not necessarily in the job they were elected to do. 

November saw an explosion of stories about MPs’ second jobs, following Owen Paterson’s resignation over “egregious” breaches of lobbying rules in return for paid work for two companies.

The government then made matters worse by trying to block a suspension of the MP and instead calling for a review into the standards commissioner. Eventually they U-turned and Paterson resigned.

As the second jobs scandal raged, the Conservative Party were fined more than £17,000 for a failure by the PM to properly register the donation used to refurbish his flat at Downing Street.

COP26 continued to be dogged with accusations of disorganisation, while the PM was criticised for failing to wear a mask during the conference and taking a private jet back to London during the first week. 

December 

With Covid putting a stop to festive plans just days ahead of December 25, Christmas 2020 was a downer for people up and down the country – unless, of course, you were a government minister. 

In a fittingly Christmassy scandal, December 2021 has seen photos, videos and accounts emerge alleging a string of parties held in Downing Street during December 2020 while the rest of the country was under strict rules on social mixing. 

Further evidence has since emerged that ministers and aides were breaking lockdown rules throughout the year, with a picture published by The Guardian showing officials relaxing in the garden of 10 Downing Street with wine during May 2020, when the country was under a strict lockdown forbidding even outdoor mixing. 

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