The Wallpapergate scandal goes free range; welcome to Nannygate

I hope you don’t mind a quick dip into political sleaze, because I do enjoy a good scandal and here in Britain we have one that’s going free range. Just before an election. Yes, friends, Wallpapergate is turning into Nannygate which is turning into Personal Trainergate.

I’ll stop gloating for a paragraph or two and translate for myself: Boris Johnson is being investigated for asking Conservative Party donors to pay for his and his partner’s £200,000 refurbishment of the prime ministerial residence, but that’s a few-days-old scandal. Now it’s now come out that he also approached donors to pay for his and his partner’s nanny and his personal trainer

I did use the phrase “the couple’s nanny,” but no, the nanny doesn’t take care of the couple, although if she (and I’m making assumptions there, I know) did she might’ve saved them from their wallpaper. But no such luck. She’s there to take care of their kid, who’s a year old. 

I won’t get into the whole nanny thing. Really. I won’t. I’m putting on mittens to limit my typing. 

Irrelevant photo: speedwell–a wildflower

It all makes me wonder, though, if Johnson also tried raising funds to pay for a food taster and a herald to blow the trumpet when he’s coming into a room. If he has, it hasn’t hit the headlines yet, but I’m ruling nothing out. 

The latest of Wallpapergate is that Conservative Party staff members have been told to hand over all communications that relate to it. They’ve been threatened with criminal charges if they don’t, which has a certain irony since their boss isn’t being threatened with criminal charges, although the email they were sent did say, “You are put on notice that this is a criminal investigation.”

Johnson is said to have taken out a personal loan to pay back whatever money was borrowed to cover  the renovations of his flat, although he’s dodged questions about when he did that. The loan he received hasn’t been declared, and neither has whatever he borrowed or solicited and then repaid. That signals trouble, although I have no idea how deep.

Prime ministers are given £30,000 to wipe away all visible traces of their predecessors, so that leaves only £170,000 to repay. 

To put that in perspective: If you worked a 40 hour week at the London minimum wage, which is higher than the national one, you’d take home something in the neighborhood of £17,000 a year, so if you didn’t frivvel that away on groceries and rent or anything else, it would take ten years to save that up. 

At the London real Living Wage of £10.85, you’d take home something like £22,000. 

Johnson, on the other hand, makes £150,000 a year as prime minister. That means he’s licking the underside of the top 1% of British earners, but he’s apparently told friends that he needs to make twice that just to keep his head above water. Rumor says he’s broke, although you might want to wait until the music stops and the numbers have all tried to grab the chairs that are left before you decide what to believe on the subject.

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But I mentioned elections, so let’s talk about them: All across the country we’ve got local elections coming up on Thursday, and they’re being taken as a test of the impact all this is having on the electorate. Whether it’s a fair test is arguable. I’m not sure how much national politics translate to local elections. 

Some pundits speculate that the mythical man in the pub (and I’m reasonably sure they do mean the man) doesn’t care about Wallpapergate. What I’ve noticed, though, is that most of the Conservative newspapers seem to have turned against Johnson on this. I haven’t a clue how it’ll go or what it’ll mean. 

In Scotland, though, the elections will decide whether there’ll be another referendum on leaving the United Kingdom and joining the European Union. That referendum, if it’s held, will either be sanctioned by the British government or it won’t be. And if it isn’t, it’ll either be held anyway or it won’t be. I think that covers all the possibilities.

It’s going to be interesting here for a while.

The Wallpapergate scandal

First, a warning: Actual wallpaper is involved in Wallpapergate–massively ugly wallpaper, in my opinion highly biased opinion–but no actual gate is known to be part of the story. If there were a gate, though, it would be a very expensive gate, a high-end type of gate, because this is about Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Whatsit, spending something in the neighborhood of £200,000 to redecorate the apartment that prime ministers live in. 

Whose money were they spending? That’s where it gets interesting. Initially it seems to have been from major Conservative Party donors, but when the nosy neighbors–also known as the rest of the country and specifically a former aide who he’d first confided in and then pissed off–started honking and quacking about it, he paid it back.

Apparently. All he’s saying right now is that he paid for it personally. He’s not saying when he did that, although he has been asked.

Irrelevant photo: Wallflowers

Prime ministers are given a budget of £30,000 to redecorate the prime ministerial apartment when they move in, and you might think a person could manage with that in a pinch. The Johnson-Whatsit household could not. So, hands up, please: How many of us (al) have £200,000 worth of spare change rattling around in our pockets and (b) would use it to redecorate an apartment we don’t own and don’t have a lease on? An apartment we could be kicked out of the minute the political winds start blowing from some new direction? 

Yeah, preliminary polling predicted the count would go that way.

Maybe Johnson and Whatsit are counting on a long political and residential tenure–a kind of thousand-year Reich, only with wallpaper.

The story starts, as nearly as I can figure out, with Johnson and Whatsit moving into the prime minister’s apartment and declaring it a “John Lewis furniture nightmare.” 

I need to stop and translate that for readers who don’t live in Britain. John Lewis is a department store, and it’s either upmarket or downmarket, depending on what street you entered the market from. If you came in on the street not just used but owned by people who’d be mortified to have the same couch as anyone else, then John Lewis is downmarket. 

Johnson and Whatsit very much came in on that end. 

But I could be wrong to call the piece of furniture we’re talking about a couch. Maybe it’s a sofa. Or a davenport. Or–oh, hell, I’ll never understand the linguistic clues to class that make British English such a minefield. I do know that key objects have different names depending on your pedigree and your bank account. And that it’s all horribly important and completely insane. And may all the gods of snobbery help you if you get one of them wrong among the people who came into the market from Unique Sofa Street, because they take this (not to mention themselves) very seriously. 

Stop giggling. They do. So consider their embarrassment if they find out they’re sitting on a couch that any Tom, Dick, or Theresa May could buy. 

Theresa May was never really one of their crowd, but in fact she wasn’t responsible for buying the couches. Silly thing that she was, she left the furniture alone when she moved in and focused on trying to govern the country. I can’t say I was impressed by her idea of how that should work, but I will give her credit, belatedly, for not trying to make it involve wallpaper.

The Johnson-Whatsit wallpaper is said to cost in the neighborhood of £800 a roll. And of course you need a couch and curtains to match the wallpaper, and a rug to clash with the wallpaper, and all manner of other stuff in startling patterns. The funniest of the photos seems to have disappeared from the internet, but as I remember it, it involved overwhelmingly patterned wallpaper, a couch screaming to itself in the same pattern, and a person who was almost camouflaged by it all. Someone who wasn’t me described the style as Victorian bordello. I’ll take their word for it since I’ve never been to a Victorian bordello–I was born far too late–but they may be doing bordellos an injustice.

[Late addition: You can find a photo here.] 

I do understand that tastes differ, but if I moved into a place that looked like their post-renovation apartment does, I’d pay a lot of  money to make it stop. And I could do it for less than £200,000. All I’d need is a few cans of white paint and a wrecking ball.

So what happens next? I don’t mean furnishings-wise, because the couple seem happy enough in their house of horrors. I mean what happens politically

Well, the Electoral Commission will be investigating whether Johnson broke any of the laws about political financing. That should be fun, even though the commission’s investigations don’t usually end up with criminal charges. 

What all this proves–if anything–is that it’s not the big-league scandals that set the national alarm clock ringing–the ones where the people running the government hand huge contracts to their friends, who then bungle the work and are thanked for it and get more contracts. Those hit the headlines regularly and we roll over and go back to sleep. The ones that wake us up are the wallpaper, the snobbery about stores most of us can’t afford to shop in. It’s not that the others are hard to understand, but this is on such a human scale. We’re watching a panto, that over-the-top British theatrical form where there’s always someone to boo and hiss.

They’re not behind us (as the audience yells at a panto). They’re right in front of us. We can’t take our eyes away.

 

News from the Department of Unexpected Results

Belgium is facing a different kind of crisis: It needs people to eat more potatoes. The country normally exports them, but the Department of Unexpected Results reports that because of the pandemic a lot of potatoes went unexported.

What’s going on here? Do people eat fewer potatoes during pandemics? Does exposure to Covid reduce people’s carb cravings? Do people only eat potatoes when they’re away from home? Tempted as I am to toss you a few off-the-top-of-my-head answers, these questions are too important for that. What we need here is a serious study. While—we hope–someone’s doing that, let’s treat the issue gently and try not to break anything. In other words, let’s not speculate.

And while we’re waiting for the results of those studies, why not make yourself a nice portion of potatoes? You’ll help improve international relations and fight Covid, all in a single act, with no intermission. The Belgians like their potatoes deep fried, with mayonnaise, but you’re welcome to eat them any which way. 

My thanks to Be Kitschig for alerting me to this crisis. 

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Young kids in Ireland and the U.K. responded to the recent lockdowns and school closures by reading longer, more difficult books. That comes from a survey of a million kids, who are reading fewer books but more challenging ones. And they’re understanding them. They’ve had more time to read and the little stinkers are surprising everyone by actually doing it. 

Then they get into secondary school–in the U.K. that happens when they’re around eleven–and after the first year the improvement stopped dead. 

Okay, admittedly, there hasn’t been time to follow the same kids from primary to secondary school. This is a different batch of kids we’re talking about. But is something about being in secondary school killing off kids’ interest in reading, even when they’re not in the building? The answer is a resolute I don’t know, but the study’s author is calling for schools to make more time for kids to read and for secondary schools to encourage kids to read harder books.

Still, we take our good news where we can find it these days: Young kids are voluntarily reading harder books. It’s a safe guess that they’re doing that because they’re enjoying them. And that’s got to be a good thing.

British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.