It's not about the wallpaper, but the Prime Minister's judgement
The Prime Minister is on the ropes again, and the punches are coming fast and furious from Sir Keir Starmer, journalists, and even members of his own political party. The questions will not go away anytime soon: did the Prime Minister pay the initial bill to refurbish his private living accommodation in Downing Street?
Of course, there are questions about the cost of individual items, like the wallpaper, drinks trolley, and chairs. But it is not about the wallpaper, it is about the Prime Minister's judgement and other associated matters about the public's perceptions of people in public life.
Occupants of Number 10 Downing Street, according to Peter Hennessy (see his book, The Prime Minister :The Office and Its Holders Since 1945), have to negotiate their way between the 'Platonic idea' and the 'constitutional deal' in the exercise of their power and patronage. If a Prime Minister 'gets off the leash' (to use the phrase of former Secretary to the Cabinet Lord Butler of Brockwell) there are constitutional instruments to do something about it—one being to vote them out of office after five years through the ballot.
And if things get bad enough, says Butler, there are 'other ways to get rid of them.' The people gave Boris Johnson a whopping big majority at the last election; and with his popularity rating appearing to increase in this week's polls, it doesn't look like the people are in a hurry to get rid of BoJo any time soon in spite of the murky business around the refurbishment of his private flat in Downing Street.
And in all the furore about the decorating, fixtures, and fittings, there is a sense in which one can feel a little sympathetic towards the Prime Minister. Not so much over the way he has gone about trying to cover (up?) the cost of the refurbishments, but rather about the fact that the Prime Minister has to expend so much time and creative energy sorting out his domestic arrangements when all his time should be spent dealing with the pandemic and running the country.
Be it far from me to make excuses for the Prime Minister, but we need to look at how much (or little) we pay our leaders. Compared to the remuneration and benefits lavished upon other leaders, the PM's salary of £160,000 is very modest indeed - there are a lot of university vice-chancellors and head teachers out there being paid more.
The UK is not the US or France, but don't forget that US presidents have everything laid on for them: they have a personal doctor, luxurious living quarters, Airforce One, cooks galore, and lots of entertainment facilities. French presidents have their Elysée Palace, cooks and domestic staff at their disposal. Unsurprisingly, some have argued that the best way to avoid the kind of sleaze that appears to be taxing the PM is to look after the Prime Minister better.
Indeed, the May edition of the Economist takes the view, notwithstanding the Prime Minister's 'usual cavalier shiftiness', that less attention needs to be paid to the 'arcane details' of his furnishings and 'more to the challenge of modernising the system that supports him'. This may well be what is needed in the long term, but we are where we are now, and the crisis that is engulfing the Prime Minister appears to be of his make making.
The Prime Minister's riposte to the allegations of personal and procedural impropriety in the refurbishment debacle is to come up with the turn of phrase that he is so adroit at spurting, namely, that it is all 'a farrago of nonsense'. We shall see how the PM fares in this 'farrago', this confused mixture, this hodgepodge of a saga, once the various investigations (around nine currently) are concluded.
Earlier, I italicized the word 'initial' in terms of the payment for the refurbishment. This is what is at stake here: did the PM pay the initial £58,000 to settle his bill, or did it come from another source? If it came from another (a donor) and was not declared in the appropriate register of members' interests, then the PM has broken the rules. According to one newspaper, emails confirm that Lord Brownlow made a payment of £58,000 to the Conservative Party HQ last autumn to cover the same amount paid by the Party to the Cabinet Office to be used in the soon-to-to established 'Downing Trust' to bail out the PM.
Does it sound 'arcane', elaborate, even deceptive? Well, it appears that the Prime Minister's former chief adviser and Brexit Messiah, Dominic Cummings, told him at the time that funding the flat make-over in this way was 'unethical, foolish, and possibly illegal'. Had he listened to his adviser Cummings, the PM would not be in this political quagmire.
If the Prime Minister did not initially settle the bill for the extra £58,000 and did not declare it, he has certainly fallen foul of the sort of standards expected of those in public life, and he has certainly failed to abide by the letter and spirit of the Seven Principles of Public Life. Known as the Nolan Principles, these include integrity, honesty, and leadership.
This unedifying saga of the PM going cap in hand to friends and donors to cough up the additional £58,000 for work carried out by Lulu Lytle, one of the most fashionable (and expensive) designers in the UK, does not reflect well on the PM. Of course, if we believe what we have been told and the PM declared the donations, we would be in a different place.
In the interest of transparency ('openness' is the fourth of the Nolan Principles) we need to know where donations are coming from so that we can judge how the party in power and the Prime Minister dispense of patronage, positions of power and influence, and access to government contracts to financial backers. There are always strings attached; Nolan Principles are there to help us see the visible and invisible ones that money buy.
Politicians are not all corrupt or dishonest. Therefore, I was surprised to hear the journalist and writer, Melanie Phillips, say on the BBC's Politics Live last Tuesday that people have 'priced in' that politicians are corrupt, that there is 'something sleazy about them'. No doubt the PM has been guilty of terminological inexactitude and other misdemeanours, but the vast majority of our politicians are honest men and women. Dominic Grieve, former Conservative Attorney General, seems to sum up the present mess the PM has got himself into: 'On the face of it, he is in considerable trouble...he is playing fast and footloose with the rules ... it is quite extraordinary.'
What is sad in this so-called 'Wallpaper Gate' story is not the price of the items in the PM's private flat; it is rather about trust and the PM's judgement. We need to be able to trust our leaders—take them at their word in good faith.
In her 2002 BBC Reith Lecture, the philosopher Onora O'Neill reminded us that without trust 'we cannot stand'. And although we aspire to 'complete transparency in public life' we must not, she warns, neglect the more fundamental goal of 'limiting deception'. The problem with lies and deception generally is that once you start, you have to maintain the artifice you have constructed, the web of lies, for one reason or another. Sometimes it is both personally and politically prudent, and courageous, to come clean.
Imagine if that ancient warrior-king, King David, had stopped the deception after his initial moral failing—his adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah's wife. Imagine how Uriah's story could have been different. Imagine how Israel's political history could have been different. Imagine if all of us, and not just the politicians and those in public life, tried our best to keep faith with the Nolan Principles. Imagine.
Dr R David Muir is Head of Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, and Senior Lecturer in Public Theology & Community Engagement. He currently convenes the Pentecostal Network, is an executive member of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR), and Co-Chair of the National Church Leaders' Forum (NCLF). In 2015, he co-authored the first Black Church political manifesto (2015).