John Penrose ought, by rights, to be the busiest man in Westminster. The Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare is, after all, Johnson’s anti-corruption champion. One might reasonably expect him to be all over the media, given the great slew of corruption scandals leaking or erupting from government not to mention a season ticket to the courts to be hauled over the coals by the Good Law Project. Strangely, he is nowhere to be seen!
John Penrose is probably better known these days as the husband of Dido (Baroness) Harding – she of the TalkTalk data leak scandal and now in charge of the eye-wateringly expensive and largely ineffectual Test, Track and Trace programme. Elevated to the peerage by David Cameron (an Oxford contemporary and friend), Harding is also on the board of the Jockey Club (see Rachel Marshall’s piece on the government’s extensive racing connections) and was appointed interim chief of the new National Institute for Health Protection (now re-named the UK Health Security Agency). This new body was created after the announcement in August 2020 that Public Health England (PHE) was to be abolished. (Keep PHE in your mind…we will be returning to it.) She also got a seat on the board of the Bank of England in 2014. So far so chummy.
John and Dido met at the management consultants McKinsey, where he worked for a couple of years following his first job at JP Morgan. He then had a succession of fairly short stints in academic publishing before being put in charge of research at the Bow Group, a right wing think tank and supporter of Brexit.
Penrose first took a crack at getting elected to parliament in 1997 in Ealing Southall. He tried again, contesting the seat of Weston-super-Mare in 2001, finally getting elected to that seat in 2005. His early parliamentary career saw him serve on the Work and Pensions Committee, and as joint chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on further education and lifelong learning. In 2006, Oliver Letwin (then MP for West Dorset) picked him as his parliamentary private secretary and in 2009 he was promoted to shadow minister for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Re-elected in 2010, he took on the role of minister for tourism and heritage, with a brief that included gambling and racing (surprise, surprise!). In the course of his sub two- year stint there, he managed to flog the Tote to Betfred for £265 million in a close fought contest with a counter bid from Sports Investment Partners (SIP), put together by the ex-chairman of the British Racing Board. Penrose declared that the government had “bent over backwards to deliver a good deal for racing”, and went on to say:
“Most people can’t understand why, in the modern world, the government should be even part owner of a bookie. So we pledged last year to end years of dithering and resolve the future of the Tote, and today we have done just that.”
It is amusing to note that none other than Winston Churchill set up the Tote to provide a safe haven for punters, as it was controlled by the state and beyond the reach of illegal bookmakers.
Nowadays we have, sadly, had to get used to watching television programmes peppered with ads for gambling companies. Problem gambling has been one of the most explosive areas of growth under the Conservatives, with devastating effects on the families of well over 280,000 gambling addicts in England alone. It is a topic which merits an article in its own right. Suffice it to say that eyebrows were raised when it was revealed that Penrose had enjoyed bookies’ generous hospitality on no fewer than 13 occasions, including a jolly at Royal Ascot.
He’s also been a dogged defender of fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) and got more than a little tetchy at a Tory party conference when he scrapped with critics of the highly addictive machines in a Campaign for Fairer Gambling booth. Like so many in his party, he seemed ignorant of the growing body of evidence supporting the addiction claims. He would have done well to read the Department for Media Culture and Sport and the Gambling Commission’s British Gambling Prevalence Survey and the subsequent research.
Even Guido Fawkes’s blog, Order-Order, saw fit to report on the contretemps:
“An observer of the exchange made an interesting disclosure after Mr. Penrose moved on. The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) had held a private event at Tory conference and Mr. Penrose was seated in the small audience. In his speech, Dirk Vennix, the ex-CEO of the ABB and ex- Director of Communications at the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, stated: ‘You scratch our back – and we will scratch yours.’ ”
Shortly after his appointment, he hoicked up the stakes for category B3 gaming machines from £1 to £2. Have you ever visited Weston-super-Mare and its very many amusement arcades? The town has been forced in recent years to take measures to try to tackle the problem of teenage gambling in the summer holidays.
His loyalty to the industry endured after he had returned to the backbenches as his voting record in 2014 shows.
- He voted against giving local councils powers to prevent the proliferation of fixed odds betting terminals and betting shops.
- and voted against giving local government more powers to regulate betting shops and fixed odds betting terminals.
So there you are.
He has been the government’s anti-corruption champion since December 2017, reappointed to the role in July 2019.
Before we get on to the NHS/PHE connection, we should just reference a couple of Penrose’s other career and personal highlights.
In 2016 he and Dido upset the locals by building what looks like a leisure centre (only for their personal use) right next to a very beautiful Grade 1 listed church in the delightful corner of the Mendips where they have their weekend home.
Last year he contributed a particularly insenstive comment in that heated free school meals debate which was only resolved by the intervention of Marcus Rashford, who shamed the government into acting with a modicum of decency. Penrose said ‘chaotic parents’ were to blame for sending their kids to school hungry and unable to concentrate. Somerset cafés and restaurants responded by offering free meals. The ability to read the mood doesn’t seem to be a skill he – or many Conservative politicians – have in great abundance.
But it is when we get to the fate of PHE and the NHS that our conflict of interest/hidden agenda antennae really start to twitch.
In August 2020, Penrose was invited onto the advisory board of the 1828 think tank/blog which boasts such scions of the right as Dan Hannan and Liz Truss. He said:
“I’m delighted to have been asked to join the 1828 advisory board, not least because of the work which 1828 and the Adam Smith Institute have been doing to reclaim the phrase “neoliberal”. It turns out that, rather like the man who discovered he’d been speaking prose all his life, I have been a neoliberal for a very, very long time without realising it.”
Now partly supported by the highly-influential and powerful right wing Institute for Economic Affairs, the think tank’s mission is:
“to make the positive case for free markets, free speech and free people.”
1828’s bloggers are no fans of the NHS and advocated the scrapping of PHE, a body for which they expressed utter contempt. It seems they got their wish. It will come as no surprise that they are also big on opening up the NHS to private suppliers and providers. To be fair, Penrose made it clear that he did not agree with every view held by the body. His stint on their board was brief and one can only speculate as to whether he left because …the optics aren’t great, are they, given his wife’s role, the growing procurement scandal and him being anti-corruption champ and all…
So now that he finds himself in an environment in which the swamp seems to be expanding its territory, what does he do?
Many MPs are deeply concerned about his potential conflict of interest with reference to the handling of the pandemic and the procurement and contracting issues. Martin Williams and Peter Geoghegan of openndemocracy.net drew attention to Penrose’s use of a keynote speech at the OECD Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum in March this year to blame the government’s abysmal handling of the pandemic on the bureaucratic effects of transparency measures in the procurement process.
That didn’t wash with opposition MPs. The article quotes the SNP’s shadow health secretary, Philippa Whitford saying that Penrose:
“seems to be trying to get the government’s excuses in, in advance of any future inquiry, as to why so many Tory contacts and donors with no experience of PPE were given lucrative contracts for millions of pounds.”
Bear in mind that Matt Hancock’s department had already broken the law on the timely release of contract details and the government had been roundly condemned by the National Audit Office for giving priority for lucrative contracts to companies with connections to the Conservative party.
In the debate into Public Procurement: Value for Money on 25 March, Labour’s Fleur Anderson said:
“It surprised some attendees of the recent OECD global anti-corruption and integrity forum that the Government’s anti-corruption champion defended the Government’s handling of public contracts. That role is occupied by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). As well as being a Conservative MP, he has, of course, a very close family interest in the Government’s pandemic response. Does the Minister agree that the post of anti-corruption champion must be independent from party politics to avoid the growing conflicts of interest within Government?”
Independent scrutiny is not a thing this government in general and Johnson in particular will tolerate, seemingly. Yesterday we learned that Johnson will decide whether Johnson has broken the ministerial code. and his new ministerial standards adviser, Lord Geidt (with interesting connections to the armaments industry himself), looks to have been muzzled from the off.
However, the news that the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, looks likely to get involved (but only after the local elections) in addition to the inquiry by the Electoral Commission all means further pressure on Johnson. Stone is already looking at that expensive Mustique holiday, and has been for more than a year…
Penrose remains silent.
So there we have it. Does it seem like Penrose might be the man for the job? One thing is for sure: he displays a glorious talent for irony and for pot/kettle politics:
(The comments are priceless, by the way. Do take a look!)