Joy Lo Dico
Sat, 20 May 2023 at 1:32 pm BST
Being prime minister takes a toll on one’s finances. It is not just the money, at £160,000 per annum including an MP’s salary. It is also the scrutiny given to your accounts and judgements. You can’t win either way: you are either too poor or too rich.
Our current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, suffers from the latter affliction. The Sunday Times Rich List, out this Sunday, reports that he and his wife, Akshata Murthy are down £200m, or £500,000 per day, in their joint personal wealth. She is the daughter of the founder of Infosys.
Though his wife is lauded for wearing simple clothes from Boden, Sunak’s wealth will forever be a punchbag. But so too was his predecessor’s “poverty”. Boris Johnson made a mockery of the privileges of Downing Street: he whinged about his lack of money yet allowed the “gold wallpaper” redecoration, and then tried to make the nation pay for it; he said his government should cut costs, then borrowed £800,000 from a distant cousin via an introduction from the soon-to-be-appointed BBC chair Richard Sharp. He was a man with the tastes of Louis XIV style and the bank balance of a Hogarthian dissolute. So we mocked him too.
The problem though is that no salary is right for the job. The £160,000 per annum stands as a modern benchmark for indignation. Last year’s average UK salary of £33,000 per annum – the equivalent of a nurse’s pay but far more than a care worker – is a fraction of that. But the PM’s salary remains far below executive pay. Even council bosses and heads of universities earn more. And so it becomes a kind of “thank-you” salary, recognising duty more than excellence.
There has been a significant fall in the standard of living for the prime minister over the centuries. In the 18th century, William Pitt received £10,500 per annum as first lord of the Treasury, a small fortune, though he still nearly bankrupted himself. The Marquess of Salisbury, incumbent PM at the turn of the 20th century, was on £5,000 per annum – or a half a million pounds in today’s money. By 1937, the prime minister’s annual pay was the equivalent of a modern £600,000. Even so, Winston Churchill was always on his uppers.
The value has been falling away ever since, chiselled away as cynicism increases. And with good reason. Witness the lurches towards money made by ex-cabinet ministers and prime ministers. Matt Hancock’s pitch for £10,000 a day from a fake South Korean company pales when you add up what he received for his mere 18 days in the I’m a Celebrity jungle: £320,000, twice the salary of the prime minister, or £17,500 a day. Viewed like that, underpaid political life becomes just a springboard to greater riches.
To run a serious government, you have to pay them accordingly: a salary that befits the responsibility and the seriousness of the job. Political salaries will always attract ire. They should attract respect. Why not double it and take away the uncertainty of the motivations of those who aspire to the highest office in the land?
Sunak is probably the best-placed prime minister to do this. Despite that £500,000-a-day loss and the expense of his tailoring, his nest is so well-feathered, he could not be accused of upping his own salary out of sheer greed.