Minister dismisses need for new reviews into Covid-19 controversies

A senior minister has insisted no new investigations should be opened into Covid-19 controversies linked to lobbying, procurement and conflicts of interest.

The Cabinet Office’s Penny Mordaunt responded to calls for a judge-led inquiry by stating “I don’t think we need any more reviews” given there are several inquiries taking place.

Ms Mordaunt struck a bullish tone in the Commons, describing allegations raised by opposition MPs as based on “speculation, innuendo and smear” rather than fact.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, who secured an urgent question on ministerial interests, had accused Government ministers of acting “like rules are for other people” and levelled claims against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Ms Mordaunt said the public do have an interest in the issue of standards in public life but view criticisms raised in the Commons during the urgent question “as a load of flannel”.

Speaking in the Commons, SNP MP Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) said there needs to be a judge-led inquiry into lobbying, procurement and ministerial and civil service “conflicts” during the pandemic.

She added it should have the power to order the production of evidence and to take evidence on oath.

Ms Cherry went on: “And with the threat of appropriate sanctions for non-compliance and for perjury or equivocation.”

But Ms Mordaunt replied: “In preparing for this urgent question today I had in my pack a list of the inquiries that are going on into one aspect or another and it ran to something like one-and-a-half pages.

“My personal view is I don’t think we need any more reviews. We have the Committee on Standards, we have the House authorities, we have the Boardman review, we have all these pieces of work looking at all of the issues that MPs have raised this afternoon.

“What I’d like to do is focus on the matters of substance that are facing this country and to ensure that we take the trust of the public with us in that respect.”

Earlier, Ms Rayner said: “The ministerial code is clear there must be ‘no misuse of taxpayer money’ nor ‘actual or perceived conflicts of interest’.

“But time and again ministers act like rules are for other people. None more so than the Prime Minister himself.

“Last year, he declared £15,000 from a Tory donor for his sleazy jet trip to a private island. This weekend, we read that the real cost was double that and paid by someone else entirely.

“People may ask why this is important. It is important because it goes to the very heart of our democracy.

“Who does our government answer to? The public, or private interests? We only learnt from the media that the Prime Minister has blocked publication of the independent Commissioner’s report.”

SNP MP Joanna Cherry
SNP MP Joanna Cherry (PA)

Ms Rayner suggested the ministerial code is not preventing “actual or perceived conflicts of interest”, noting: “When the Home Secretary lobbies on behalf of a former adviser flogging sub-standard face masks, who lands a hundred-million-pound contract, without tender and double the going rate, who cannot perceive this as a conflict of interest?”

Ms Rayner added: “The Health Secretary, who appears to have ordered an official to recommend a bid he hadn’t even read, from a former Tory MP, who pocketed another £200 million of taxpayers’ cash. Surely the independent adviser must investigate these cases with no prime ministerial veto?”

Ms Mordaunt countered: “The charge (Ms Rayner) makes is that the people she names are somehow on the take, that’s the charge she is making here today on the floor of the House.

“That they have been focused not over the last 16 months on working their socks off to save lives, to get a vaccination programme to do the things that the public need us to do, but they have unbelievably entered into politics, made sacrifices, overcome the obstacles that she will be aware of to get into this place, not to serve in public life but to do a mate – or more accurately a Tory mate – or someone that they vaguely know, or met in a lift once or perhaps don’t know at all, a favour.

“That is the accusation that she is making today. And I’m afraid this is why the Labour line of attack is not getting traction, well rehearsed though it is. It’s not getting traction with the public because it is not plausible. It is based not in fact, but on speculation, innuendo and smear.”