The spendthrift at Number 10 Downing Street
Published by The i paper (3rd May, 2021)
Imagine you had a choice of two men to run your family finances, maybe also to fix your insurance policies and oversee your kids’ education. One of them has a smart suit, sober haircut and previously rose from an ordinary background to the top of his profession in public service. Perhaps a bit bland, even a bit boring, but undoubtedly competent, decent and a safe pair of hands for your cash. The alternative could not be more different: a dishevelled upper-crust rogue with a messy private life who was dismissed from previous jobs for dishonesty, moans endlessly about being broke and always disappears when it is time to pay for his round in the pub.
This would not seem a difficult choice. Yet polls indicate that the country, including some poorer parts of the nation, prefers The Rake over Mr Reliable when it comes to running their affairs, even amid a pandemic and consequent economic distress. Politics is, of course, rather different from personal finance. People are looking for leadership, for a sense of vision and some kind of emotional connection with their prime minister as well as someone to sort public spending. And there is no doubt that Boris Johnson, with his extraordinary ability to shrug off previous viewpoints like a venomous snake shedding crinkly old skins, has perfected the art of reflecting changing electoral desires while appealing to the basest of tribal instincts.
Yet the spiralling scandal over a luxurious makeover of the Downing Street flat is not just raising questions over Johnson’s probity, even if it is serving as a symbolic proxy for so many other toxic issues of cronyism, corruption and cavalier contempt for political norms that swirl around his tarnished government. Note how his allies – who call themselves conservatives but clearly despise rules and traditions that might restrain their actions – suddenly seek abolition of the Electoral Commission watchdog after it dared launch an inquiry into funding of his home refurbishment.
Yet this issue, while superficial and fundamentally rather silly, is significant since it shines a harsh spotlight on their hero’s suitability for the top job. Put aside for a moment any deception over who paid the bills to allow Johnson and his fiancée to terminate ‘the John Lewis nightmare’ bequeathed by Theresa May – or as another Tory snob put it to a newspaper, to sort out a style that looked like ‘a second-rate Bognor guest house.’ Forget how such tone-deaf statements — sneering at people who shop at John Lewis or stay in seaside bed-and-breakfasts on breaks with their families – strip away the veneer of the party’s own makeover as the voice of Red Wall voters in northern England. Ignore Johnson’s outburst of parliamentary anger at criticism, even some of the sexist jibes at ‘Carrie Antoinette.’
Consider instead the question of a character who is so dissolute, so greedy and so incompetent that he cannot live on a combined household salary more than ten times the average earnings of people voting this week in the Hartlepool by-election. Johnson pockets a basic salary of £157,372 a year as prime minister, with tens of thousands pounds more coming from book royalties, while Carrie Symonds landed a lucrative post as head of communications at a pal’s charity. They get a rent-free flat in central London plus a beautiful country house and chaffeur-driven limousine courtesy of taxpayers, while his listed Oxfordshire family home is on the rental market. Even his last Caribbean holiday was funded by someone else.
Yet ever since Johnson became prime minister there has been a constant dribble of stories about the struggle to live within his means after abandoning his high-earning life as a columnist and comic turn at corporate events. Sympathetic journalists run supposed horror stories about how he must pay for his own food and fund his own dinner parties like the rest of us mortals. There are outraged quotes from ‘friends of Boris’ that he cannot afford a housekeeper, has only one cleaner and worries about funding childcare.
Now we learn that not only did he try to get others to pay for his lavish home makeover, but party donors were asked allegedly to foot the bill for his personal trainer and nanny. ‘Why should I pay for his baby’s arse to be wiped?’ replied one. This is a fair question. Yet such allegations are in keeping with portraits of the prime minister painted by biographers as a man who is exceptionally avaricious, lacks emotional intelligence and is riddled with insecurities.
One disclosed how Johnson’s former wife had to handle their household finances despite being a busy lawyer and mother to four of his children. There are tales of interns having to pay for his coffee, lovers made to pay for drinks and childish efforts to avoid paying back debts. Another revealing story told of how when he was foreign secretary he asked an aide to find three possible holiday destinations – then chose the most costly, despite complaining of being broke. Bear in mind this latest saga revolves around wallpaper that reportedly cost £840 a roll, an outlay that baffles even posh interior designers.
Behind the opulent new curtains of Downing Street we see glimpses of unattractive characteristics in a human being: entitled, greedy, grasping and parsimonious, all at the same time. ‘You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt,’ screamed Symonds in the couple’s infamous 2019 row over spilt wine on a sofa that led to a police intervention.
Johnson’s political skill is to pose as a man standing up for struggling families while living such a lifestyle that he is unable to stay afloat on income way beyond the dreams of most citizens. Yet whether he is chronically chaotic, contemptuous of voters or simply fiscally incompetent, this scandal begs a serious question: is this really the right person to be running the country, especially at a time of crisis?