It appears that the cost of being Prime Minister has never been higher. A rash of stories have appeared lately to confirm that the Blairs are having to use large amounts of their own money to pay for some of the costs of entertaining at 10 Downing Street, and also for the extensive wardrobe needed by Mrs Blair when she attends functions or accompanies her husband on trips abroad. "Tony spends a fortune of his own money, in particular on entertaining," a friend said. "Cherie has to spend a fortune on her outfits for public engagements. She doesn't have a clothing allowance."
In addition, the decision of the cabinet in May 1997 not to accept their full ministerial allowances must make this situation more acute. As Prime Minister, Mr Blair is entitled to £107,109 on top of his MP's salary of £47,008, but he only claims £67,760, making a total of £114,768 instead of £154,117. The reasoning behind this looks straightforward. If cabinet ministers do not accept their full allowances then it shows that they can exercise the sort of self-restraint that should be adopted by other public sector workers. They set a good example.
In Scotland, the numbers are smaller and the practice is different. MSPs who are ministers take their normal salary of £40,092 and their full allowances on top. This is also a good example - to Westminster.
Back in London, there are two issues of principle and practicality tied together. On pay there is a simple decision to be taken. Clearly Westminster cabinet ministers believe that they are overpaid. Without engaging in an array of inappropriate comparisons, it must be better to convert these gestures into something more definite. If the rate for the job is too high, then cut it. If it is not, then accept it. The greyish area of voluntarily taking less than the entitlement is not a good place to be. The problem is that it implies the possibility of quietly accepting the full allowance some time in the future and thereby enjoying a substantial increase in pay without having to seek a salary rise, or suffer criticism for having done so.
This diffidence about cash also implies that politics is a vocation rather than a job that needs to be properly rewarded. Given the near-intolerable personal pressure politicians (not to mention their families) are placed under and the amount of genuine sacrifice involved, who can doubt that this is a vocation? A degree of martyrdom over pay is not needed to underscore the point.
So far as the second issue of clothes and hairdressing for Mrs Blair is concerned, the picture is surely very clear. The government should immediately conduct a reasonable audit of all these costs, work out the difference between what Mrs Blair would ordinarily buy to wear and how often she would normally have her hair done, and pay the whole cost of the difference. Any other approach is, frankly, amateurish and old-fashioned. This expenditure is not slight; Mrs Blair takes a hairdresser with her on foreign trips and has had to furnish herself with an extensive designer wardrobe. It is absurd that the Blairs have to subsidise the cost of his being Prime Minister and the situation needs to be reviewed at once.
However, when these two issues are taken together, there is reason for more disquiet, which goes well past common sense and best practice. The Blairs dig deep into their own pockets to pay for these items partly because they believe that they are necessary and, importantly, because they can afford to. And because Mr Blair chooses not to draw his full allowance, the costs are not offset by a sensibly large salary. In a sense that means that they pay twice.
No doubt the Blairs can afford these things. But what happens if the next Prime Minister cannot? What happens if he or she has no reserves of cash to entertain at nominally unofficial, non-governmental functions, or to buy her husband or his wife clothes and services which maintain an acceptable standard? Does Britain simply accept that, literally, appearances cannot be kept up?
The present situation cannot be allowed to continue as it is. Unless allowances are created and unless the Prime Minister and his colleagues draw their full salaries (or at least are clear as to what those salaries ought to be), then there is a real danger that politics will become the sole preserve of those who can afford to pay for it. Given the press obsession with even minor figures like Jeffrey Archer, their close interest in the personal lives of those considering becoming involved in politics undoubtedly discourages many to begin with. On top of that, if you manage to reach the top echelon, you are not permitted to accept the full salary and have to pay for the privilege of being there. This is not an attractive job description (only blameless millionaires need apply?) and it excludes many.
This cannot be Mr Blair's intention, and he and his colleagues should act quickly to make sure the brightest and best enter politics. Could it be that Holyrood is setting the right example here?