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OP-ED: The political cracks that we just can’t wallpaper over

  • Published at 03:31 am May 4th, 2021
Boris Johnson
File photo: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson Reuters

The sheer scale and audacity of Boris Johnson’s chicanery makes one draw breath

This Thursday, millions of Britons will go to the polls in a series of local and mayoral elections up and down the country. There is also a parliamentary by-election in the normally safe Labour seat of Hartlepool in the North East of England. 

But this week the newspaper headlines have been dominated, not by the elections, but by allegations of corruption by the prime minister, Boris Johnson. 

For those readers who have not been following this story closely (and why would you?), here is a brief synopsis: When Johnson became prime minister in December 2019, he and his partner, Carrie Symonds, decided that their Downing Street flat needed a radical makeover. The cost of this refurbishment, including expensive handmade curtains and new wallpaper at reportedly £840 a roll, was £58,000. 

Every prime minister receives a grant towards living expenses, in Johnson’s case some £30,000 per year, but it seems that the couple have expensive tastes. Johnson has previously made it known to friends that he has concerns about his finances. 

Before becoming leader, he worked as a weekly columnist on the Daily Telegraph and was a regular speaker on the after-dinner circuit. Both jobs seem to have been extremely lucrative and it was said that he was earning in excess of £500,000 a year including his MP’s salary.

At the moment he was elected PM however, all of these money-making projects had to stop and he had to rely solely on his prime ministerial salary of something in the region of £160,000 a year. This was clearly a massive pay cut. Anyone else in that situation would instantly review their spending and make some drastic changes. 

Not so Mr Johnson and Ms Symonds who still wanted to replace, what they described as, the apartment’s “John Lewis nightmare” furnishings bequeathed to them by the prime minister’s predecessor, Theresa May.

In order to fund these refurbishments, Johnson is said to have thought up all sorts of clever wheezes to get others to pick up the bill, including setting up a so-called Downing Street “trust fund,” and trying to find a wealthy Conservative party benefactor to pay for it all. 

This second option, it seems, is what has happened, although Johnson and his cabinet have strenuously denied it. Instead, they have all followed the line that the prime minister ultimately paid the bill but have, so far, been at pains to evade saying who, if anyone, initially picked up the tab. 

Why does all this matter? 

Well, on one level if a rich Tory donor did initially cover the cost of the flat’s refurbishment and the PM then subsequently repaid it, then that would constitute a loan, and would need to be declared to the parliamentary authorities. Since it wasn’t declared, then that constitutes a breach of the Ministerial Code which governs the affairs of all ministers -- including the prime minister. 

But more seriously, it is yet another indicator that Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, is prepared to play fast and loose with the rules. For the whole of his career, in both politics and in journalism, Mr Johnson has shown again and again that he thinks that the normal rules of behaviour simply do not apply to him. 

This was something that his housemaster at Eton, Martin Hammond, noted in a letter to the PM’s father as long ago as 1982. It was this same attitude that led him to think it was acceptable to describe veiled Muslim women as looking like letterboxes or bank robbers, or to discuss, while working in Brussels, plans to have a fellow journalist beaten up.  

It was this same arrogance that caused him to be sacked as vice-chairman of the Conservative party and Shadow Arts Minister for lying to his then party leader about one of his numerous extra-marital affairs. It was this casual acceptance of the rules when in 2018, and again in breach of the Ministerial Code, he took up a well-paid job on a national newspaper just three days after resigning as Britain’s Foreign Secretary. 

Or the time he accused Liverpool football supporters, who were present at the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, of being in part responsible for the deaths of 96 of their fellow fans, and then described the whole city of Liverpool as “wallowing” in their victim status. Or when he outrageously called African children “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” something no right-thinking person would ever dream of doing.

The list goes on and on and examples of his crass, insensitive, and frankly sometimes racist rhetoric can be traced back for 30 years or more. Even this week, it was alleged by several sources, that back in October of last year, during a heated meeting at Number 10 where he was trying to shield the economy from a second Covid lockdown, Johnson is reported to have raged, “Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” 

This remark would have caused most previous prime ministers to reach for a pen and sign their letter of resignation. But not Boris Johnson. Once again he seems to have gotten away with it. 

This is not to suggest that past PMs have been scandal free and paragons of good governance and probity. There can hardly have been a single incumbent of the office since it was inaugurated in the 1720s who hasn’t made some almighty blunder, been guilty of underhand skulduggery, or participated in dubious financial or sexual practices. But it is the sheer scale and audacity of Johnson’s chicanery that makes one draw breath. 

So, on Thursday, will the voters really show they care about all this? The opinion polls suggest not. The latest show that the recent revelations about the prime minister’s lavish lifestyle and his callous attitude to the victims of the pandemic have had only a limited impact of the government’s lead over the opposition parties. 

The British public has apparently “factored in” Boris Johnson’s shortcomings and dodgy dealings as their country’s leader. They know he is a rogue and a scoundrel, and they don’t seem to care. Indeed, there are those who see his failings as a positive asset in a leader; it makes him all the more human, more like them. 

If that is the case, then what a sorry state we as a country are in.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.