Wallpapering over the cracks

8th January 2022

Lytle cause for concern in Downing Street

The long running farrago over who paid for what, when and what they received in exchange, to redecorate Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat came to a head this week.  In typical fashion it did not conclude in the colourfully bold, some may say garish, style of the Johnsons’ chosen decorator, Lulu Lytle, but settled into the usual whitewash of bluster and apology which has characterised Johnson’s premiership.

In a series of WhatsApp exchanges it is clear that Johnson was prepared to accept cash from one of his cronies, Lord Brownlow, in exchange for entertaining Brownlow’s pitch to stage a Great Exhibition 2 in 2022.  Brownlow’s cash was to be laundered through a so-called blind trust, thus washing it through a ‘legitimate’ route which could not be construed as a donation or, worse still, a bribe.

When the whole scam came to light, last April, Johnson appointed another pal, Christopher Geidt as an ethics adviser and suggested that he look into whether or not Johnson had acted in breach of the ministerial code.  It was no surprise to anyone that Geidt did not find any breach and assured the public that Johnson did not know where the cash was coming from.

The Electoral Commission also got involved and launched its own inquiry, finding that the Tories should have reported Lord Brownlow’s donation and fined the Conservative Party £17,000, a notional slap on the wrists.

In the meantime, it turns out that Johnson had not come clean with Lord Geidt and had forgot to mention a couple of WhatsApp exchanges with Brownlow, which were clear evidence that he had a very good idea of where the cash was coming from, how it would be laundered and what Brownlow was after as a pay off.

Geidt subsequently took the hump and accused Johnson of acting “unwisely”; Johnson offered a “humble and sincere apology”; Brownlow did not get GE2 but a diluted version branded as Unboxed, which will be rolled out over 2022; and Lulu Lytle oversaw the £58,000 flat redecoration, including the now famous £800 per roll gold wallpaper – tasteful.

Out in the real world, the pandemic continued to rage, the body count in Britain continued to outstrip most of the rest of Europe and the new Omicron variant had made its appearance, just when everyone thought that some degree of normality was on the horizon.  

While Johnson shrugs off justifying his £58,000 flat refurbishment many across the country are struggling to feed and clothe their children, or meet the rising cost of energy bills, which impact disproportionately upon poorer families.

The average annual salary for workers in North East England in 2021 was £27,500, the lowest in the UK and less than half of the cost of Johnson’s designer flat makeover.  Once tax and national insurance contributions are deducted take home pay is likely to be less than £2,000 per month, which is how much the average annual energy bill is likely to be from April, according to recent estimates.

Take that calculation down to the level of part time work and those surviving on Universal Credit and the impact of energy costs alone looks alarming.  Add to that rising national insurance costs for those in work, inflation across the economy, leading to rising costs for food and fuel, and the cost of living crisis begins to take on real shape.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has immunity to the impact of these changes, due to his millionaire status, but has said that the Treasury are looking at ways to mitigate the impact of rising prices.  The Treasury do not appear to be open to that mitigation including a windfall tax upon the profits of the major energy companies or a wealth tax on profits and property ownership, or even making the major beneficiaries of the pandemic, in the form of Google and Amazon, pay their fair share of the tax burden.

Still, we must not lose heart.  The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, has written to all local authority Chief Executives this week encouraging them to begin planning for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, with a four day Bank Holiday weekend scheduled for the 2nd – 5th June and extended pub opening hours in prospect for the first three nights.

Beacons will be lit, music will be commissioned, street parties will be organised and much alcohol will be consumed, in a collective effort of the will by the ruling class to keep us believing that we really do need a monarch, “long to reign over us”.

Whatever state the British economy is in by June we can be sure that the rich will continue to get richer and the poor will continue to pay the price.  Playing the patriotic card is often the last refuge of the few in diverting the people’s attention away from the day to day realities of life in capitalist Britain for the many.

The bigger reality is that no amount of wallpaper will cover the cracks in the capitalist edifice, even at £800 a roll, and the corruption that is at the heart of the system.  That is a system which is designed to maintain power and privilege in the hands of those who continue to own and control the means of production, distribution, exchange and communication. 

That must change, the whole structure which sustains such inequality must be challenged and the emergence of the people as citizens, not subjects, with control over their own destiny, will be the measure of a real shift in the balance of power. That would really be a step towards levelling up.

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