There’s no point demanding a retrospective VAR review on the footage of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak clapping for the NHS last year. Footballers can be booked for sarcastic applause, but ministers can’t. Even so, news the government proposes a mere 1% pay rise for NHS workers – a real-terms pay cut – suggests the prime minister and chancellor weren’t so much clapping for the NHS as clapping back at it. Or maybe they were doing the sort of begrudging we-pay-your-wages clap that you sometimes see in the stands, a reminder that the NHS would be nothing – NOTHING – without the fans.
Either way, it’s right that top-flight football is the only profession where the figures involved are perpetually discussed in terms of how many nurses’ salaries they could cover. A new club signing who you’d hope would bring pleasure to countless fans of all ages must always be tutted at as though he is being paid out of the critical care budget, as opposed to by some Delaware investment banker. But the fact we’ve just blown 13 nurses’ salaries on Priti Patel’s right to be a shit to her staff must escape similar comparisons. Incidentally, that tally is without the legal costs. If you add those, we could scare you up even more hospital staff. (Not literally scare them, of course – we’re not the home secretary.)
Furthermore, please don’t look for other ways in which to put the offer of £3.50 a week to NHS nurses in perspective. You’re not supposed to consider things in these terms. It’s like comparing apples and sociopaths. Certainly don’t go back to the revealing days of the MPs’ expenses scandal, when there were Conservative MPs who literally spent twice as much on saucepans for their second homes as the sum by which the government is now proposing to increase the average annual nursing salary. Most likely those very pans were taken out on the doorstep during a Clap for Carers, and beaten most sincerely. (“I am also very proud to support a local company, which makes these gorgeous wooden spoons from recycled duck houses.”)
Don’t even consider percentage pay rises as something that can be talked about like-for-like. Even if it was belatedly revealed before Christmas that Dominic Cummings had been awarded a near 50% pay rise, in a year in which his most significant contribution was undermining the government’s entire public health message in the middle of a deadly pandemic, and battering trust in political elites in a manner that endures long after he swaggered out of the front door of No 10 with a box containing his spare trackie bums and the business section of the airport bookshop.
Above all, please try to lose sight of the fact that the NHS pay news came in the same week it was reported that Boris Johnson and his partner had come up with a ruse to redecorate Downing Street which would not require them dipping into their own pockets. (The prime minister is very pushed for cash, as friends of the prime minister have repeatedly told the newspapers over the past year.)
Admittedly, there’s always something comically optimistic about any prime minister deciding to redecorate Downing Street, almost as if the act of putting in a new kitchen will magically insulate them from ever being turfed out. It feels a bit like US billionaires gifting a hospital a new cancer wing – an absolutely watertight insurance policy against ever dying themselves. But the plan with Downing Street is apparently to set up a charity, allowing rich donors to buy something – an £11,000 console table, perhaps, or some influence – which would then be installed in No 10. Though the British public would never go in it themselves, they would benefit in kind from knowing that features such as a £5,000 red wall symbolised the Red Wall. Or whatever.
So given that Johnson seems intent on finding a way to use other people’s money to pay for it all, our only comment should be on the lack of ambition. Donald Trump planned to build a massive, base-rallying wall on the southern border and send the bill to Mexico. By contrast, Boris Johnson’s dreaming of something that won’t even get the cover of World of Interiors. I do hope the prime minister discovers just a modicum of audacity, and starts doing rallies where attendees are encouraged to chant “Gild the wall!” or “Commission the tented breakfast nook!” If he really must go the traditional route, why not get his Bullingdon associates over to dinner? They’d duly wreck Downing Street, then send cheques for the refurb the next morning.
With fewer than one in five people believing Sunak’s budget will leave them worse off, the government is riding euphorically high in the polls. But the wise Buller might realise this is the moment to get a cheque into the NHS. There is only so long the trashing-it phase can go on, and with a backlog of nearly 10m elective surgeries – and many staff already feeling pushed towards the door by their year of horror – the government may yet find its 1% offer a financial sleight-of-hand too far.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist