What is lawful and what is right are not always the same thing. While evading tax, for example, is straightforward illegality, tax avoidance is not: but the wealthy hiring accountants to exploit unintended loopholes that aren’t accessible to Joe Public is widely regarded as wrong. Which brings us to today’s ruling by the Independent Office for Police Conduct that there will be no criminal investigation into the relationship between the prime minister and US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri. It concludes that there was no illegality: but that is not the same as finding no wrongdoing.
There is no evidence that, as mayor of London, “Mr Johnson influenced the payment of any sponsorship monies to Ms Arcuri,” it says, or that “he influenced or played an active part in securing her participation in trade missions.” But even so, it does find that officials’ decisions about “sponsorship monies attendance on trade missions” were influenced by their knowledge of a “close relationship” between Arcuri and Johnson.
This is itself revealing about the nature of power. The job of those who work for elite figures – whether they be politicians or businesspeople – includes trying to anticipate the wishes of their employers. They make decisions, rightly or wrongly, which they believe will please. Those intuitions may be wrong, or based on misinterpretation, but they spring from a workplace culture which rewards those who have done most to satisfy the boss, and which leaves those who fail to do so out of favour.
That is surely why the Greater London Authority’s oversight committee is right to reopen its own investigation: to discover whether, if there was no illegality, there was still wrongdoing. If public money was indeed allocated not on the basis of whether the recipient was the most suitable or qualified individual, but because of their relationship with the mayor himself, then that itself constitutes clear wrongdoing. As the investigation itself concludes, Johnson’s failure to declare an interest could amount to a breach of the London’s assembly’s code of conduct. The Trumpian attempt by Johnson’s camp to claim that this scrutiny is simply a politically motivated smear campaign is a blatant attempt to shut down rudimentary accountability, without which no healthy democracy can function.
Indeed, the saga is itself a window into a wider issue: of the hidden links which bind the powerful together. We live in a society, after all, in which wealthy individuals who lavish political parties with donations end up dressed in ermine in the House of Lords; where revolving doors spin with former politicians and civil servants doing jobs in private companies they previously worked with. The British establishment is, in part, an exclusive social club too – one where government ministers and wealthy business figures and financiers dine, drink and holiday together, their conversations kept safely away from public scrutiny.
We can accept an official judgment that the Arcuri saga does not involve illegality. But that does not mean even the prime minister, Teflon Johnson, is above being investigated for wrongdoing. As a general rule, the private lives of our politicians are none of our business. There are two exceptions: if they stray into the realm of hypocrisy, telling their voters to do one thing while they do another; or if those close to them personally benefit from their influence and power. If we turn a blind eye to the latter, then our already embattled democracy will be damaged still further.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist