Show caption Liz Truss’s threat of sanctions on the Russian elite ‘would carry more weight if the UK were not a country designed to protect oligarchal wealth’. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA Opinion Pulled by a current of Tory indolence, Britain flounders in a sea of dirty money Nick Cohen Fraud costs £190bn a year, but the UK is unlikely to clean up its act when its system is designed to protect the wealthy Sat 5 Feb 2022 19.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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The paradox of the oligarchical money that washes around the British elite like a sea of dirty water is that it has yet to buy every aspect of British foreign policy. Opposition politicians and journalists can identify the Kremlin-linked billionaires funding the Tory party. We can look in a mixture of revulsion and astonishment at how the naturally conservative milieu of City financiers, libel lawyers, estate agents, the art market and private schools has become as dependent on the proceeds of crime as opioid addicts on OxyContin.
But we cannot say that Vladimir Putin owns this government. The UK supports Ukraine and shows no inclination to excuse Russian imperialism. If you want a truly cynical European power, look to Germany, which would rather see Putin’s armies march into Kyiv than risk Volkswagen losing the sale of a single hatchback.
Domestic, not foreign, policy is corrupted. Your taxes are rising and your public services are failing because a governing elite that is at ease with easy money will not pass laws to drain the money swamp. Because it does not police oligarchs, the government allows every type of fraudster to flourish.
The temptation is to focus on a London populated by caricatures out of socialist agitprop. Here we have Ben Elliot, connected to royalty via his Auntie Camilla. Elliot provides “unique access and exclusive privileges” to the super-rich on the one hand and charges Tory donors £250,000 for meetings with Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak on the other.
To show you the damage, however, let me take you far from Mayfair to Manchester crown court by the River Irwell, where Judge Anthony Cross stared at Asif Hussain last month and confessed to being staggered. Before him in the dock was the leader of an organised crime gang with 48 convictions on his record who had nevertheless received a £50,000 Covid bounceback loan without anyone in government undertaking “the most basic of checks”.
The fraud was not detected because the Treasury stirred itself out of its torpor but because Greater Manchester police uncovered the swindle while investigating a stolen car racket.
The pilfered £50,000 was a mere pittance. Thieves helped themselves to at least £5bn of bounceback business loans during the Covid pandemic and that is before you get to furlough and “eat out to help out” scams. More generally, if you are a victim of crime you will in all likelihood be a victim of online fraud. And as the humiliating realisation that you have been conned sinks in, you will also know the police will be unable to do a thing about it.
You can live a rich, comfortable and undisturbed life in the UK as a native fraudster or migrant oligarch
The best guess is that in total the UK loses £190bn a year to fraud while the government spends just £852m fighting it. As with so much else this government does, the policing of fraud looks as if it is twisted for political gain. Students (who generally don’t vote Conservative) face a student loan company with a budget of £200m and 3,000 staff tasked with preventing fake applications. By contrast, Sunak committed just £100m to a taxpayer protection taskforce and employed just 1,200 staff to capture older, white-collar criminals (who tend to be solid Tories and, indeed, the friends of cabinet ministers).
You can live a rich, comfortable and undisturbed life in the UK as a native fraudster or migrant oligarch. The secrecy of the financial system hides your assets. You do not have to declare which homes you own. Speaking before the Commons Treasury committee last week, senior staff of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs assured all watching criminals that they had taken a “deliberate decision” to reduce the prosecution of tax fraudsters.
Meanwhile, what the Conservative MP Bob Seely nicely described as a “corrupting cottage industry” of law firms and barristers ensures that anyone who raises questions about fraudulently acquired wealth faces libel actions with costs that run to millions. The judges who hear them are not corrupt, but they lack the intellectual capacity to admit that the inordinate costs of the system they serve suit the interests of the wealthy rather than the interests of justice.
The magnificently diffident Conservative peer Lord Agnew resigned as the minister responsible for countering fraud last month because “it feels somewhat dishonest to stay on in that role”. Total fraud losses across Whitehall were running at an estimated £29bn a year, he said, while a combination of “arrogance, indolence and ignorance freezes the government machine”.
Ask why this arrogant, indolent and ignorant tolerance of fraud has so afflicted the leadership of a Conservative party that preposterously pretends to be the party of law and order as well as the party of sound money. Bear all three in mind while you listen to a clearly panicking Liz Truss as she promises to deliver an economic crime bill that ministers have delayed bringing before parliament for four years. Truss has to look as if the government will act because she told Putin that the UK would impose sanctions on the Russian elite if he invaded Ukraine, a threat that would carry more weight were the UK not a country designed to protect oligarchical wealth.
A serious policy response would mean providing the funding to Companies House so it can weed out and prosecute the beneficial owners of the thousands of criminal enterprises it currently covers with a patina of respectability. It would include cleaning up the City, clamping down on corruption in UK-controlled tax havens and stopping the libel courts being used as weapons in asymmetrical warfare by hostile foreign powers.
I am happy to be proved wrong, and ministers would have the support of patriotic Conservative MPs if they acted, but I cannot see this government doing it. When (not if) Johnson is thrown out, the odds are that he will look to the oligarchs for easy money, like George Osborne and so many others before him.
In Butler to the World, a terrific book out next month, Oliver Bullough describes how the Treasury has always deferred to tax havens, hedge funds, private equity and venture capitalists and opposed any attempt to make fraud harder to perpetrate. It will do so again.
Those same financial interests that influence the Treasury supply the Conservative party with donations and personnel. The sea of dirty money is the sea the Conservative leadership swims in. It can no more live outside it than a fish can live on land.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist