People on the doorstep don't worry about the costs of refurbishing Number 10; what they are concerned about is...
How often we have heard this response to questions about alleged loans or gifts to the Prime Minister, a classic diversionary tactic to avoid revealing unpalatable truths? The media then attempt to extract confessions of wrong-doing from his supporters, eliciting further evasions and getting nowhere. We all suspect that there is a fire smouldering beneath this smoke screen, but surely we are missing something rather important.
Immediately prior to the pandemic, the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) published details of the population's disposable household income: the amount we all live on. The median, showing the maximum of what half the population exists on, was £29,900 per annum. Most of these families were receiving between £15,000 and £25,000 annually (the modal income). It is noteworthy that the distribution of incomes is very uneven and the ONS showed that there has been a progressive trend in inequality over the past 10 years, the rich getting richer and the gap widening. The Prime Minister was plainly very grateful to the nurses who cared for him when he caught COVID-19; the median annual salary of staff nurses in the NHS is £28,000, and I'm sure he would agree that they work very hard for it.
By coincidence, the State, which is responsible for the upkeep of many historic public buildings, has decreed a generous allowance of £30,000 for redecoration of Number 10 when a new Prime Minister takes up residence. Many people have been faced with the need to find extra accommodation when changing jobs, and most employers do pay an allowance to cover some of the expenses involved in moving home. If the rumours are to be believed, the Prime Minister felt it necessary to spend considerably in excess of the allowed £30,000 on his flat but presumably found it difficult to pay from his own pocket. What happened to allow him to bridge this gap is a matter of speculation at present, but the rules of public life (which were made quite clear to me even in relation to unremunerated roles I played on advisory committees) expect any gifts, loans or possible conflicts of interest to be declared. His were not.
Journalists have, of course, concentrated on the rule-breaking, which has elicited remarkable obfuscations by Conservative politicians and evasiveness by a senior civil servant, with rather obvious use of differing tenses of verbs to avoid an outright accusation of lying. The more they do this, the greater becomes the suspicion that they are concealing the truth. They will all know, if they don't actually recall the episode, that the cardinal sin of lying to parliament was what brought John Profumo and ultimately the government down. The way ministers have been answering questions about the Number 10 affair recalls the famous appearance in court of the late Mandy Rice-Davies; they would, wouldn't they? But this is not what most annoys me. It is something that appears to have been missed by most commentators.
What sort of person moves into a new but temporary home, only recently and, judging by the pictures, quite tastefully redecorated, and finds it necessary to spend a reported £90,000 on doing it over again? At least three times more to be spent over a few days than half the population of his country, including those who nursed him, is obliged to live on for a year. Of course, if it were genuinely his own money, as apparently in the case of the Chancellor, he could claim that he was providing employment while satisfying his egregious vanity, as in Belloc's ironic motto: 'It is the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan'. If this were the case, he would surely have told everyone by now and we would have seen the evidence.
There is a reason that this has passed almost unnoticed. People in the metropolitan bubble often have little understanding of how most people live. Many earn sums that would have been unimaginable two decades ago and have the sense of entitlement that such wealth confers. This is a manifestation of the unacceptable face of capitalism, and the consequent increasing inequity is one of the great evils of our society. In very striking contrast to those of the post-war generation, many recent successful politicians hope to become enriched, not from their basic salaries but in other ways, particularly after leaving office. Some of the Prime Minister's predecessors are cases in point. Many ministers now have become multi-millionaires before they achieve office and there is a distressing trend back to the days of Lloyd George and the covert purchase of peerages.
The Prime Minister's defenders cannot understand what is wrong with this, hence their responses: 'When I knock on my constituents' doors, they aren't worried about decorating flats; they worry about...'. Of course, they have worries. For most, life is a daily struggle to make ends meet. You need to ask a different question on the doorstep: 'Do you think it right that the Prime Minister should use other people's money to spend three times your household's annual income on redecorating his temporary accommodation in London?' I think they may then find that some people do actually care about such things. There is more to doing the right thing than simply obeying the letter of the law.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own