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Sunday, May 02, 2021

Is the Prime Minister really a pauper?

When it was decided in 1911 to start paying MPs, it was done partly to keep the Labour Party onboard as part of a left-leaning Liberal government, but also to ensure that ordinary men and women could take up positions in Parliament. 

 There is an interesting history of payment for MPs here, including the fact that MPs had been paid in medieval and Tudor times with Dunwich in 1463 paying one of its MPs in herrings. The blog says that serving in Parliament was perceived as an inconvenience needing recompense, but as the prestige of being an MP grew, so payment became purposeless:

The main reason advanced for introducing payment was, as Thomas Attwood said in 1839, to have ‘that class of men introduced into the House, men of that station and character which would enable them to be competent representatives of the wants and wishes of the Commons of England.’ This concern grew as the franchise expanded after 1867. In 1870 Peter Taylor, Liberal MP for Leicester, proposed restoring the payment of MPs. Alongside the importance of helping working men into Parliament, he emphasised the historical precedent of payment; its near universality in other countries’ legislatures; how it would put MPs on a par with other professions and with ministers who were already paid. These arguments remained the staple justifications through a series of debates up to 1911.


Further enfranchisement in 1884 seemingly reconciled Gladstone to payment, which he cautiously endorsed in 1888. The issue became decidedly partisan, predominantly supported by Liberal MPs (as official government policy from 1893), and opposed by Conservatives. Meanwhile Irish Home Rule MPs were provided with basic salaries by their supporters. Trade unions replicated this by subsidising MPs in the 1890s and 1900s, culminating in the Labour Representation Committee begun in 1904. To opponents this showed that compulsory payment was unnecessary; to supporters it exposed the underlying unfairness of non-payment. As today, supporters argued that the increased workload for MPs, thanks to increased legislation and greater interaction with constituents’ necessitated reform.

In line with other Parliamentary reforms it was party politics which settled the matter. The Osborne Judgment, a judicial ruling which banned political contributions by trade unions, infuriated the Labour party. The Liberal government of Asquith, lacking a Parliamentary majority after 1910, decided to placate Labour anger by introducing the payment of members in 1911 (ministers had hitherto pleaded lack of money to avoid reform). Yet reform was instituted cautiously. MPs would only be paid only £400. Lloyd George argued this was equal to a junior clerk in the civil service. He even called the payment ‘not even a salary. It is just an allowance’. The difficulty that distinction poses is still being grappled with over a century later.

This of course brings us to the present day and this article in the Times, where astonishingly it is reported that the British Prime Minister, who is on £157,372 a year, cannot afford to live on his ministerial salary:

Johnson has told friends that he needs to earn about £300,000 a year — twice his salary — to keep his head above water. A former No 10 insider said it was “received wisdom” that he is permanently broke.

Johnson’s salary puts him close to the top 1 per cent of UK earners. Yet he makes less than Angela Merkel’s £267,000 or Joe Biden’s £290,000. Luxembourg, with a population roughly equivalent to that of Sheffield, pays its prime minister £200,000.

The income tax and national insurance bill on Johnson’s salary amounts to about £63,000, which would leave him with about £95,000 a year. But his salary is topped up with royalties for his books, which have amounted to about £25,000 since he became prime minister.

In addition, he has received £28,000 in personal gifts and donations in that time, according to his register of interests. That includes a £15,000 trip to Mustique in December 2019, courtesy of the Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, which is the subject of an inquiry by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

However, there are other costs associated with the role of prime minister. While he and his family can live rent-free in the No 11 Downing Street flat, he must pay a tax liability for heating, lighting and maintenance, which comes to about £7,000 a year. He also pays a council tax bill of £1,655 a year. Johnson covers the cost of any food and drink for personal consumption, even if it comes from the Downing Street kitchens.

As a “protected person”, he receives taxpayer-funded travel, and can stay free at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence in Buckinghamshire. However, whenever Johnson or Symonds entertain guests at the house who are not on official visits, Johnson must pay for their food and drinks, which a guest once estimated to cost £75 per head.

These are hardly poverty-levels, nor has it caused much difficulty for others. And yet for some reason Boris Johnson has to be the exception:

Senior Conservatives say donors have been approached about funding other aspects of the couple’s lifestyle. A prominent MP received a complaint from a Tory donor that they were asked to foot the bill for a nanny for Wilfred, Johnson’s son with Symonds, who turned one last week. The donor is alleged to have said: “I don’t mind paying for leaflets but I resent being asked to pay to literally wipe the prime minister’s baby’s bottom.”

It has also been claimed that Elliot paid for Johnson’s personal trainer, Harry Jameson, who charges £165 an hour. Elliot is also alleged to have paid for a personal chef for the prime minister after he was hospitalised with the coronavirus last year. Elliot denies both claims.

No 10 says Johnson has paid the cost of Wilfred’s childcare and his own personal trainer, but did not respond to queries about whether he paid the original bill or reimbursed someone else. A full-time nanny or nursery in London is likely to cost at least £2,000 a month.

Friends say Johnson rarely spends money on himself and is often careless with his financial affairs. “He was often the sort of person who would forget to pay at the end of a meal or would leave lots of money on the table and then forget to pick up the change,” said one former aide. He once left a tip for a hairdresser in euros not pounds, to her dismay. Johnson’s one indulgence is a pair of Church’s shoes, which can cost £750. However, they were often full of holes, according to friends, because he used them to brake as he rode around London on his bike.

“He gives a lot of control over his affairs to staff in his office, including his tax return, which is why it sometimes blows up in his face,” the former aide said.

Johnson has been reprimanded in the past for failing to register financial interests in parliament as required. The concern in No 10 is that the commissioner for standards, who is considering whether to investigate the redecoration of the flat, in addition to the inquiry into the Mustique holiday, could recommend that he is suspended from the Commons.

He also faces an inquiry by the Electoral Commission, which says there are “reasonable grounds to suspect” the party’s payment for the flat may have broken the law. Some MPs and old friends of Johnson blame Symonds — whom they call “Carrie Antoinette” — for the excessive spending on the flat, saying Johnson has little regard for opulent furnishings or clothing. “Boris didn’t really know anything about it until Carrie handed him the bill,” said one Downing Street insider. “She has champagne tastes and a lemonade budget.”

But others say the problem is Johnson’s secrecy with senior aides who might challenge him. Three senior Conservatives say Rosenfield — who was brought in to steady the ship after Cummings’ departure — is voicing doubts about how long he will remain in No 10.

The affair has led to a “bunker mentality” and swirling suspicion in No 10. Senior officials are concerned leaks have emerged from Johnson’s private office.

This is not the lifestyle of a man-of-the-people, as Johnson likes to portray himself. Not only is he apparently flouting rules designed to prevent undue influence being exerted on him and his office but, in my opinion, he is bringing the whole office into disrepute. It isn't so much that Johnson is a pauper, but that he is living beyond his means and is dependent on others to keep his head above water.

Johnson should take a lesson in household economy from one of his predecessors. Iain Duncan Smith in 2013 asserted that he <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/01/iain-duncan-smith-live-benefits>could live on benefits</a> (then £53 per week).
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