Downing Street has spent more than £2.6m on refurbishments to hold White House-style press briefings, the PA news agency has discovered.
The cost of the renovations for the televised question and answer sessions with journalists was revealed as Boris Johnson faces pressure over the funding of a separate revamp to his official residence.
Labour questioned the prime minister’s priorities for shelling out millions on “vanity projects”. All the while “picking the pockets” of NHS workers, amid growing anger at the government proposing a pay rise for health staff of just 1%.
An extensive overhaul within No 9 Downing Street began last year. It came as the government announced the plans to hold the televised briefings, with their launch long delayed during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
In response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, the Cabinet Office on 5 March issued a breakdown of the costs. They total £2,607,767.67, largely excluding VAT.
“Picking the pockets of NHS workers”
Opposition MPs seized on the figure to criticise the government’s recommendation of a 1% pay rise for NHS workers despite the unprecedented pressure they suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.
As nurses considered taking industrial action, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said:
It would take around 100 years for a newly qualified nurse to get paid this kind of money.
It sums up Boris Johnson’s warped priorities that he can find millions for vanity projects, while picking the pockets of NHS workers.
Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper added:
This is nothing more than an expensive vanity project and is just more evidence that this Government’s priority is spin, not substance.
The Prime Minister himself said that he ‘owed his life’ to Covid doctors and nurses but now he’s happy to see front-line nurses take a real-terms pay cut, whilst he gets a flashy new TV studio – the Prime Minister should hang his head in shame.
The disclosure came as the PM faces pressure over the refurbishment of his official flat above No 11. His fiancee Carrie Symonds is overseeing this refurbishment. With costs reported to be spiralling, Downing Street refused to deny that Johnson is considering setting up a charity to pay for the works to the flat.
The move raised concerns of possible conflicts of interest, offering a potential backdoor to providing a financial benefit to the PM.
The televised briefings were said to be the brainchild of Johnson’s former adviser Lee Cain. But he reportedly disagreed with Johnson’s choice of former journalist Allegra Stratton as press secretary to lead the briefings as a government spokesperson.
Cain later left Downing Street, along with former Vote Leave colleague Dominic Cummings, as a behind-the-scenes power struggle within No 10 spilled out into the open. An advert said the salary for the press secretary role would be based on experience, but reports suggested the taxpayer-funded post would pay around £100,000 a year.
The FoI response, which was delayed by several weeks as officials decided whether the disclosure was in the public interest, included £1,848,695.12 for the “main works”.
Other costs included £198,023.75 on “long lead items”, and £33,394.63 on broadband equipment. The launch of the televised briefings had been anticipated as early as the autumn, but in January No 10 said they were being delayed as ministers planned to hold regular press conferences during the lockdown.
Lobby correspondents, the political reporters based in parliament, currently have daily briefings with the PM’s official spokesperson or his deputy. Both are civil servants.
But under proposals set out in July, an afternoon session led by Stratton will be filmed at 9 Downing Street.
As a politically-appointed special adviser, rather than an impartial civil servant, Stratton will be able to take aim at opponents as well as defend the government’s actions.
The department said that funds have been spent to allow daily broadcasting by various news organisations within the Grade I listed building. The response said:
This will necessarily require one-off capital works, including audio-visual equipment, internet infrastructure, electrical works and lighting.
This spending is in the public interest as the new broadcasting of lobby briefings will increase public accountability and transparency about the work of this Government now and in the future.
Such spending on maintenance and technical facilities reflects that 9 Downing Street (the Privy Council Office) is a Grade I listed building.
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