Why is Boris Johnson so broke?

·5 min read
Boris Johnson with the Vote Leave battlebus (PA Archive)
Boris Johnson with the Vote Leave battlebus (PA Archive)

Boris Johnson has never given the impression of a man in a comfortable financial situation. His former boss at the Daily Telegraph Max Hastings remembers when Johnson lost a bet on the 2010 election. Hastings chased up his winnings and eventually Johnson sent a letter saying “cheque enclosed”. There was no cheque. This is not the only time that Johnson has been parsimonious – interns at the Spectator say that he never paid them back for coffee rounds, he had to borrow £3.10 from Jennifer Arcuri to pay for drinks when they went on a date and guests at Chequers have said that before meals he proclaims: “Eat every scrap. I have to pay for this.”

He doesn’t even seem to want to pay for his own flat refurbishment. The Electoral Commission has launched a formal investigation into his home makeover, saying “an offence or offences may have occurred”. While we await the results of where the £88,000 came from for the works, the immediate fallout is that Johnson has alienated a significant portion of the population in rejecting what he called Thresa May’s “John Lewis nightmare”. Sarah Vine has added to the uproar by saying that he can’t be expected to live in a skip. Ahem. At the start of this week, the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was grilled by MPs today about why the Prime Minister attempted to let Conservative donors to pay for an eco-friendly new look for Number 11 Downing Street. His former chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, in turbo bunny boiler mode, has said it was “unethical, possibly illegal”. A senior Tory has said that Johnson had to eventually take out a personal loan to cover the cost: “You have to be pretty wealthy to have £60,000 lying around. He has just emerged from an expensive divorce.” There’s also a debt for £535 on the county courts database for a defamation claim that he hasn’t repaid, although Downing Street has said the claim is totally without merit and an application will be made to strike it out. I asked Arcuri if they had discussed money during their dalliance and she replied: “I don’t think the public is ready to hear the truth about what’s going on with this man”.

As Prime Minister, Johnson earns £157,372 a year. That’s five times more than the average salary in the UK. His tastes are far from opulent – his idea of a lavish meal out is ordering extra doughballs at Pizza Express and when he was Mayor of London he wore a hoodie he called “Old Bluey” until it was unravelling. He pays no rent at Downing Street (only around £7,000 a year on running costs – a steal to live in central London). The register of interests reveals that he continues to receive royalties from his 11 books and income from property. So why is he so hard up?

Well, everything is relative. That salary is a pay cut – when he was on the backbenches, he earned £800,000 from newspaper columns, speeches, book royalties and TV. His prime ministerial career has come at a cost, literally, now that his extra income has dwindled to £10,500 from book royalties. He is ruing the day he dismissed his £250,000 Telegraph salary as “chicken feed”. There was supposed to be another book by now, about Shakespeare, which has been years in the making, but there has been no time for that (and therefore no money). Arcuri is also a Shakespeare expert.

Then there are his outgoings; paying for his children and his 2018 divorce from QC Marina Wheeler. The settlement with Wheeler is estimated to be around £2 million. Johnson and Wheeler have four children who went to private schools, and the youngest is still at university. And there’s his 12-year-old daughter with art advisor Helen Macintyre – that’s the thing about affairs, if you aren’t careful about contraception they can end up being expensive. Symonds has a £1.3 million house in Camberwell but they can’t rent it out as she still goes there, when Johnson needs a break from their crying baby (they can’t afford a nanny).

Unlike the Chancellor, Johnson does not have a millionaire wife to support him. Symonds has only just started working again, for the animal charity The Aspinall Foundation (although she has paid for some of their holidays). Long-term, Johnson will be able to make money from the speaking circuit but that’s no use now when he has a baby and a flat to pay for, as well as a wedding on the horizon.

Then there’s the matter of tax, always a hot topic for politician. In the year after he resigned as foreign secretary until he became PM, he was a prolific public speaker. In the space of just over 12 months, from July 2019, he boosted his income by £797,262.68 — putting him firmly inside the 45 per cent tax bracket for most of his extra-parliamentary earnings. His salary as PM barely touches the sides of that.

Johnson has always thought about money. He was on a scholarship at Eton and as the eldest of four he took responsibility when his family had financial difficulties. The words of his political pin-up Winston Churchill are at the forefront of his mind - Churchill teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, writing to his brother: “The only thing that worries me in life is money”. It’s perhaps the one thing that Johnson is reluctant to have in common with the former Prime Minister.

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