Sleazy UK Politics may Breed Corrupt and Venal Companies

Short porridge this morning as I’m angry and in a rush. As the UK  government flounders in yet another storm of sleaze and corruption accusations, its venality and crass opportunism appears to be spreading through the economy, and is likely to hold back the recovery of personal and business travel.

Blain’s Morning Porridge, 8th November 2021 – Sleazy UK Politics May Breed Corrupt and Venal Companies

“A man who has never gone to school may steal a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

This morning – Short porridge this morning as I’m angry and in a rush. As the UK  government flounders in yet another storm of sleaze and corruption accusations, its venality and crass opportunism appears to be spreading through the economy, and is likely to hold back the recovery of personal and business travel.

I’m afraid I won’t get time to write a proper Morning Porridge today. I was going to examine the apparent strength of the US economy, and why that’s bad news for bonds and therefore overpriced stocks. I won’t get round to Musk’s gaslighting promise to sell 10% of his Tesla stock. Nor will I find time to delve into the increasingly vicious end-game gang-war at the top of the Chinese leadership contest – which will still likely see Xi Jinping anointed de-facto emperor.

Instead, I find myself on the periphery of Tory Sleaze. I shake my head in despair… and blame myself. I voted for them.

When even the Rupert Murdoch Sunday Times is headlined with “New Tory sleaze row as doners who pay £3 mm get seats in House of Lords” or “Cynical treasuer system is great untold scandal” , then it’s clear the thin ice is cracking under the current Boris government. Which is a terrible shame. Boris and his party were about to score a major Publicity win from a “more effective than expected” COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow – but is there anything on the front pages aside from Tory Sleaze?

It’s a shame because the Conservative Government still shows a far higher likelihood of putting the nation back on its feet after the pandemic than the still Corbynite Labour Party – and that’s after weighing up the probabilities the Tories will commit a major policy mistake by imposing austerity spending. The problem for the Labour party – whatever its left-wing believe about a workers’ paradise – the UK electorate wants a government of the centre first..

We should have what we want; a slightly left-of-centre Conservative government willing to fund recovery (a generally good thing), but instead it’s shown itself to be increasingly corrupt and venal. If it wasn’t former premier David Cameron lobbying dodgily for Greensill, then it’s been Tory Minister’s chum’s troughing from government handouts and contracts through the pandemic. Then it was last’s week abrupt volte-farce trying to protect a Tory MP from the independent parliamentary standards committee – Boris assuming if the rules don’t suit, then he could change the rules.

There are some good Labour politicians. There are some good and honourable Conservative politicians. The question is how do we get them into office?

The problem with little corruptions and venality is how quickly it spreads. If one pig gets it head in the trough, all the others will do the same. If one dubious businessman sees the opportunity to buy respectability like a title via donations to the Government, or buying the prime minister a holiday in the sun, then everyone will do it. The effect spreads. As the French say (and know); fish rot from the head down…

Which leads me to my own issue.

Global business travel is about to reopen. The US will be opening its doors. Travel is going to surge. Airlines will recover.. and travellers are going to face a ……. nightmare. Covid Testing.. a new industry that’s sprung up overnight is effectively writing its own rules and reaping monopoly profits. Covid testing is proving a gold mine for well-connected opportunists.

I ran into it last night.

I’d booked an £80 PCR “fit to fly test” late on Sunday evening for a business flight on Tuesday with a company call “ExpressTest”. I showed up to their drive-in testing centre to discover a bored security guard and 2 girls doing the tests. I got chatting to them and it was clear it was just a job to them. I was administered the swabs while I sat in the car, and immediately noticed it was a lateral flow test she was doing. I suggested it was a mistake… I needed a PCR, and that’s what it said on the booking which I showed her again. I was told the test I was getting was the one they did – and could complain to their customer service team.

I called “customer support” – after the usual guff about high volumes of calls, then eventually admitted there seemed to have been a mistake. But because the centre was now closed I couldn’t get a new test till Monday, and there was therefore no guarantee I would get the result in time for a Tuesday flight. The girl promised me a manager would reply to my complaint by email that evening – but no one did.

I now face a scramble this morning to get a 12 hour PCR test in time for my flight on Tuesday – which is why I rushing to write this. I spent hours last night trying to book one – I was offered a fast test at Heathrow (2 hours away).

So late last night I did some digging – and discovered ExpressTest is owned by a firm that’s emerged during pandemic called Cignport Diagnostics Limited.  The three guys behind the company include a proper doctor, and two chaps who are involved with Inchora Investments – which I’ve only ever noticed in the UK housing rental sector before.

Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with any company spotting an opportunity and making it happen… but… after my experience last night I can’t help but think the whole thing and Covid Testing stinks of something fishy and financially dodgy. It felt like the kind of thing that should be on the pages of Private Eye, rather than trying to assist the UK travel business to recover and get up flying again.

I’ve haven’t had the time overnight to properly research the company, but I did find out one of the three founders is a former conservative councillor, Nick Markham. He’s had a stellar career as the youngest ever Conservatives on the notorious Westminster Council rising to deputy council leader, and has the spent the last 8 years in a succession of Non-Executive Director roles in the Department of Work and Pensions. He even has a page on the UK.Gov website.

The other Inchora Chap is it’s CEO; Steve Whatley. Aside from involvement in Rental Property – perhaps his link to Westminster Council – he’s co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) “Business in a Pandemic (Covid) World”. The APPG’s biggest contribution to solving the pandemic business crisis is a press release where it proposes “fit to (fly or attend)” covid passes should be administered at test centres with the government acting as “final underwriter” of the costs of the test programmes. (You can find it here.)

I also discovered Cignport is one a few large test firms who’ve got together to write rules for the test industry.

Effectively Cignport is a company that not only stumbled on the whole new business niche of profiting from enforced passenger testing, but it is also self-regulating that same niche! Meanwhile, its managing to charge customers £80 a shot and has apparently got government to underwrite all its financial risk!

Nice work if you can get it…..

Big changes in the Porridge for a few months.. Off to Dubai!

The Porridge will be intermittent over the next week due to my day job! When I’m not scribbling the Morning Porridge (which I do early each morning) I run alternative assets (private debt, equity and hybrid finance) for Shard Capital in London.

Tomorrow (Covid Test permitting) I’m off to base myself in Dubai for a few months to bring the finance together on a very large project finance deal and through to closure. (It broadly means being diplomatic with the funders and racking up some miles…)

It’s a fascinating deal – and suffice to say I will be looking for a considerable amount of debt (the equity is pretty much done..). I will write it all up for the Morning Porridge in due course. I should be set up in the new office Wednesday and back up and running. I’m looking forward to get a slightly different perspective on the world….

Out of time, off to find a Covid Test, then do the Day Job

Bill Blain

Strategist, Shard Capital

11 Comments

  1. Ironically, the Covid test company that Owen Paterson MP was pushing might well be the best. Randox Health has its own drop boxes throughout the U.K. for returning PCR tests. They cost £43 and you get the result the next morning. The company is a preferred provider of Easyjet. I’ve used Randox and IQDoctor and everything about Randox was considerably better.

    • I used Randox for our 2 day return a few weeks ago… they charged us and it got lost in the post. Never got the results – which we knew were negative anyway because we did the hometest Lat Flow tests… Never got our money back either.

  2. Not sure you are being completely fair to Owen Paterson. As far as I know he had properly declared his interest and both Co:s were based in his constituency so Ministry officials knew where he was coming from. In fact you could say he was being over zealous on behalf of his constituents.
    He was a good Minister of Agriculture and one of the few who appeared to know what he was talking about. MPs should be involved in business and industry so that they at least have some involvement in the real world and force the civil service out of their ivory towers to engage with industry.
    Robert Thomas

    • Why am I being unfair to former MP Owen Paterson?
      1) Did I mention him by name? No.
      2) Did I say he was lobbyist for another Testing Company? No
      3) Has the independent parlimentary standards body found him guilty? Yes.

      What I said was: “Then it was last’s week abrupt volte-farce trying to protect a Tory MP from the independent parliamentary standards committee – Boris assuming if the rules don’t suit, then he could change the rules.”
      What is unfair about that?

      Entirely your right to side with the people who have publically supported him on the Torygraph (his chum Charles Moore) and other Tory MPs.. But I don’t know the guy so i’ll go with what parliament’s appointed keeper of the truth said about him… and the number of furious Tory MPs who have complained.

  3. Find this exchange fascinating. My wife and I recently needed a PCR test for a flight to Italy. We walked to a mobile testing center in NYC. No appointment. No fee. Test results in our email inbox in less than 24 hours. Seamless!

      • Even better here in NL… make appointment for a PCR test, turn up, be professionally swabbed by a trained individual who then puts the sample in a machine before your very eyes and returns the result in person within 15 minutes.

        For €79, including handwritten fitness to fly certificate in hard copy (soft copy emailed to me by email)… Robert is your uncle.

        What is more, when one PCR test indicated Covid (following an infection 2 weeks earlier… false positives are common up to 2 months after infection), the tester administered both a lateral flow test AND a blood antibody sample test FREE OF CHARGE right there and then, allowing her to sign me off with a clean bill of health and catch my flight next day.

        I am literally speechless when confronted by the venality and robbery I am confronted by in the UK. But then that’s partly why I moved away from the UK.

  4. If you are double vaxed and wearing a mask, a PCR test requirement just feels like harassment now.

  5. Apropos of top comment in your piece, it is a principle best stated by Macheath in Brecht’s “Dreigroshenoper” …”What’s better than robbing a Bank?” — “Owning one”

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