TIM WALKER on the latest in-house spending at the Treasury. Plus, how Steinway pianos have suffered from Brexit.
With a £500 million-plus personal fortune and a father-in-law who’s a billionaire, Rishi Sunak inevitably seems to struggle sometimes to empathise with lesser mortals.
Already in these straitened times, the chancellor has allowed annual running costs for his flat in Downing Street to edge towards the £1 million mark – a record – and, now, after Ofsted identified 1.78 million home-schooled pupils with no access to a computer, Sunak has presided over a big upgrade in tech kit for his mandarins at the Treasury.
Mandrake can disclose £750,000 has been spent last October alone on 300 home-working kits and 150 mobile phones. In addition, Sunak’s team have been given 510 state-of-the-art laptops to ease their home-working burden. Their devices – 16GB HP Dragonfly Laptops – set the taxpayer back £643,576, with the home-working kits costing £57,600 and the mobile phones £48,420.
In the typically under-stated language of spend disclosures, the new tech has been assigned a “cost centre description” of “IWS New Spend Initiatives”. No word within the disclosures of everything that’s included in the home-working kits, but one imagines in Sunak’s case it might include provision for props such as insulated coffee mugs, copious supplies of Yorkshire Tea and at least one Union Jack for display purposes.
Mandrake’s old friend Jon Sopel got a couple of minutes to ask questions at one of the first White House press conferences last week. Regrettably, the BBC man used it to inquire about Joe Biden‘s relationship with a dead prime minister – Sir Winston Churchill, whose unflattering bust the president has removed from the Oval Office.
When I say he’s an old friend, it’s a stormy relationship. “What the f— are you talking about?” the 61-year-old Sopel said to me when I suggested in November that his approach to reporting Trump was too credulous when the outgoing president was encouraging insurrection.
Sopel’s not inevitably taken too kindly to criticism of the Churchill question, insisting he did also inquire about a more “serious” matter, too.
Tellingly, Sir Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, didn’t leap to Sopel’s defence, but retweeted some of the criticism, too. Perhaps the BBC is anxious about asking the Biden administration about its relationship with Boris Johnson, the incumbent, extant prime minister.
Is the Daily Mail for Boris Johnson or against? Its page one headline “May: Boris’s moral failure” – about Theresa May’s concerns over Johnson’s foreign aid cuts and “flouting” the law – suggests the antis are in the ascendancy.
“When Paul Dacre was editor, we took a line on someone and stuck to it, but on Johnson we’re all over the shop,” my man tells me. Geordie Greig, Dacre’s successor who backed remain in the referendum, seems ambivalent. Private Eye suggests Lady Rothermere is still for Johnson.
It’s as well perhaps that Sir Edward Heath never lived to see this day. He had two great passions in life – the European Union, which he led our country into into as prime minister, and the Steinway piano that took pride of place in the drawing room at Arundells, his Salisbury mansion.
Word reaches me from Hamburg, the home of Steinway & Sons, that far fewer pianos are now making the Channel crossing. The UK was once a lucrative market for the company with no shortage of pianists who wanted only the best, but Brexit is making them prohibitively expensive.
“In December, a 1980s model O Steinway would have cost a UK consumer maybe £45,000,” my informant tells me. “Post-Brexit, that same piano is now a whopping £9,000 more, once VAT is added to the total. Unsurprisingly, Steinways, Bechsteins and Bösendorfers are now piling up in European warehouses and shippers are reluctant to deliver them to the UK, knowing most Brits are simply not willing to pay the additional cost.”