This article is reproduced by kind permission of Robert Saunders and was first published in his blog: The Gladstone Diaries.
Forget the wallpaper. Forget John Lewis. Forget the curtains and the chintzy sofas. This isn’t a story about the Prime Minister’s divorce, or his love life, or his questionable taste in furniture. It’s not about that most tired of excuses for the abuse of male power: the scheming woman, allegedly plotting behind the throne. The real story is both simpler and more important. It is always, and only, about the money.
A prime minister cannot serve two masters. If a Head of Government is receiving large financial payments from a private donor, totalling tens of thousands of pounds, a democracy has a right to know. Those payments might be entirely innocent: a simple token of esteem, from one person with more money than he needs, to another with less money than he wants. But the public cannot make a judgement on that if the arrangement is kept secret.
We cannot know if the donor was bidding for government contracts, or lobbying for a change in their tax arrangements. We cannot know if they were looking for a seat in the House of Lords, or an appointment to a public body. We would not be told if they had received an honour, or access to ministers, or a regulatory change that saved their business millions.
The line from ministers seems to be that, so long as the taxpayer didn’t pay, the source of the money is “none of our business”. In fact, the reverse is true. It is because the taxpayer isn’t paying that it is so important we find out who is. Who handed benefits worth tens of thousands of pounds to our prime minister, and what they might want in return?
A second line of defence notes that, when the story began to leak, the prime minister changed course and paid the bill himself. But that suggests that he knew the arrangement was indefensible. In that respect, it reinforces the importance of public scrutiny as a defence against misconduct. We do not know whether other such arrangements are in place. And we still do not know – because the prime minister refuses to tell us – from whom he initially accepted the donation.
If someone relieved me of a bill for £58,000, I would feel greatly in their debt. The only debt a prime minister should feel is to the electorate. If a prime minister cannot live on his official salary, but is dependent on financial gifts from wealthy patrons, we need to be certain that this is not coming with conditions that pit private against public interests.
So this is not a story about soft furnishings, or taste, or a snobbish attitude to a department store. It is about money. And because it’s about money, it’s about accountability. And because it’s about accountability, it’s about democracy.
That makes it about us. If a prime minister digs in his heels; if he tells us that we are not allowed to know who is paying his expenses, or to whom he owes favours, or what he might have done for them in return, he is issuing a challenge to our democracy. Do we accept that a prime minister is not accountable to the public? That he does not need to tell us if he’s in receipt of cash favours? That he can open up a private revenue stream, and tell the public where to shove their right to know about it?
If we do, we are letting down our democracy as badly as the most corrupt politician. We will have dismantled yet another of the defences that protects democracy from the corrosive power of wealth. That’s why, in the end, this is not about Boris Johnson at all.
It’s about us. And our responsibilities to the democracy in which we live.