When Tony Blair was first handed the keys to 10 Downing Street in 1997, they came with a handbook.
He and his wife Cherie, Blair was informed, should anticipate spending more on clothes for official occasions. The couple were expected to cover this extra expense themselves. Also outlined were the rules around drinking: if the prime minister had a Scotch in his study, No 10 (that is, the taxpayer) would bear the cost; if he drank the same Scotch in his Downing Street apartment, he would have to pay for it himself. He would also be liable for any damage to the property not covered by “fair wear and tear”.
One imagines such granular, almost petty demarcations between public and private expenses came as something of a shock to Boris Johnson when, two decades later, he moved into Downing Street. Here was a flat that, if the comments attributed to Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds are accurate, resembled a “John Lewis nightmare”, in which the Prime Minister was expected to reside.
Clearly it needed revamping (despite having been fully refurbished twice in 15 years), and the £30,000 a year allocated by taxpayers wouldn’t come close to covering it. Someone would have to pay for the alleged £840-a-roll gold-flecked wallpaper and £9,800 sofa.
Who exactly did pay for Johnson’s refurbishments, when, and how is now the subject of an Electoral Commission investigation, as well as a number of other inquiries. Those are interesting questions, and no doubt the answers will make front-page news when we get them. But buried beneath reports of a complex shell game involving the Conservative Party and a donation from Tory peer David Brownlow – whose net worth is £247m, according to the 2020 Sunday Times rich list – is another question: why didn’t Johnson just pay himself?
That answer is, on the surface, straightforward: the Prime Minister is skint. He has, according to reports this week in the Times, told friends he needs to earn at least double his prime ministerial salary “just to get by”. Hefty child support bills and divorce payments from his various marriages, not to mention a new baby and fiancée, hit him just as he was trading in his lucrative Telegraph column and speaking gigs for a job in No 10 in 2019. When the Daily Mail reported Johnson’s money troubles back in September 2020, it was clearly intended to evoke derision. How could a man earning five times the median UK salary be broke? But that the Prime Minister may have been tempted to take dodgy loans for his home renovations is no laughing matter.
And while Johnson and Symonds’ apparent ease with someone else paying for their bizarrely expensive tastes is stomach-turning, we should be concerned that leading the country is less well remunerated than writing a newspaper column. The point is not how the prime minister’s circa £150,000-a-year salary compares to the national average, but what other jobs someone with similar education and experience could perhaps choose. And by that metric, he is scandalously underpaid.
A newly qualified solicitor working for one of the top firms can expect at least £100,000, for example, while City traders can make three times that. CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, meanwhile, earn on average 20 times more than the chief executive of the United Kingdom. One does not even need to look to the dizzying heights of the private sector: the Cabinet Office provides a list of hundreds of civil servants who are paid more (sometimes substantially more) than the Prime Minister, most notably the chief executive of HS2 (£620,000). Local councils are even more generous, with chief executives frequently receiving more than £200,000.
In fact, the UK prime minister is one of the worst paid leaders in the developed world – behind not just the US but Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and even most of the notoriously prudent Nordic nations. When the salary of the prime minister was first enshrined in law in 1937, it was equivalent to over £690,000 a year in today’s money. That would surely have covered the wallpaper, gold-flecked or otherwise.
One might argue that the power and prestige that comes with holding the highest elected office in the land is remuneration enough. That is a charming ideal. But realistically, basic economics dictates that the level of pay for any given job is invariably going to influence who wants to do it. And if we insist on paying our prime minister less than a middling lawyer, there are three types of candidate we can expect.
The first are people who have private funds of their own (or from their spouse), who don’t have to care about money. That is relatively simple, but it is hardly desirable to restrict the premiership to those who already have personal wealth.
Second are people whose skills aren’t exceptional enough to land them lucrative jobs elsewhere – again, straightforward but suboptimal and likely to result in low-quality candidates.
Third are those who look at the salary, consider their options, and decide they can make the job worthwhile. Maybe that’s by keeping an eye on what they can do afterwards: Theresa May now reportedly gives speeches for an average fee of £110,000, while David Cameron no doubt found his Downing Street connections helpful in reinventing himself as a Greensill lobbyist. Or maybe it is by taking advantage of the role itself: if a businessman wants to gift you a £15,000 holiday in Mustique or loan you £58,000 interest-free to do up your flat, why not accept it? Haven’t you already served your country by taking a pay cut? Aren’t you entitled to a few perks?
We might like to think this grubby opportunism is an affront to the integrity of our leaders – and perhaps it should be. But there is a contradiction in the way we insist that those holding office must keep their lives rigidly separate from the office itself, right down to which room they are drinking their Scotch in, without being prepared to pay them properly. Until we do so, we cannot be surprised when the role attracts people who assume that the rules exist to be bent to their advantage. Otherwise, how could they afford their sofa?