Some 170 civil servants are paid more than the prime minister. But historically, has this job ever been well paid, and when did it become a benchmark for big salaries?
David Cameron earns less than 172 officials who advise his new government according to new figures, but he should count himself lucky. Past prime ministers have been left heavily in debt and needing to be bailed out by the monarchy.
Historically it has never been the country's best-paid job. At times cabinet ministers have been paid more than their leader, and in the 16th Century, parliamentary wages for some were part-paid in fish. But crucially, there has always been the potential to cash in on the position, say political historians. In the case of Sir Robert Walpole, who did the job for nearly 21 years from 1721, it was mainly through corrupt means.
“He made a fantastic amount of money in the job,” says Paul Seaward, director of the History of Parliament project. “But at that time there was a huge amount of bribery and corruption going on. There was a very ambivalent attitude towards such things back then.”
Prime ministers also boosted their wages by securing sinecure posts, which required little work but came with a good salary. These included the post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, given by George III to William Pitt the Younger in 1792. It paid 4,382 pounds, according to the House of Commons Information Office (IO) — nearly 500,000 pounds in today's money. It also came with Walmer Castle in Kent as its residence.
But even if there were ways of capitalising on the position some didn't. Pitt was paid a net income of 5,000 pounds, along with the extra for being Lord Warden, but left the job after 18 years with huge debts.
“He was naive when it came to money,” says Dr Seaward. ``Other people had been out to make money from the role, but he wasn't.''
A few years before him, Lord North — prime minister from 1770 to 1782 — had to be bailed out by the King while he was still in office, says Professor Kevin Theakston, a specialist in British government and politics at Leeds University. George III loaned him 16,000 pounds, some 2m pounds in today's money.
It's only from 1830 that regular records of the prime minister's full salary entitlement are recorded on the IO website. For a century — from 1830 to 1930 — the wage stayed at 5,000 pounds. Over those years, this figure saw a drastic real-terms decrease from 42,500 pounds to 24,364 pounds, using Bank of England calculations.
Up until the 1830s, the chancellor of the exchequer and other ministers were paid more than the prime minister, and then the same wage until 1937. This remained the case for the attorney general until the 1960s. However, the perks of the job — grace and favour residences in Downing Street and Chequers, staff and drivers — helped make up for the lower wages.
One prime minister who significantly changed the fortunes of his successors was David Lloyd George, who took the job in 1916 and was in the post for nearly six years. He was the first to secure a hefty sum from publishers for his memoirs, which went on to sell extremely well.
“He was the first prime minister to exploit the fact he was a valuable commercial commodity when he left the job,” says Prof. Theakston. “He wrote his memoirs and also did the lecture circuit. He set the standard for today's politicians.”
Winston Churchill is another who made money from writing after he left the post.
But it's from the 1980s that the prime minister's salary started to become important to those outside Westminster, as a point of comparison for other salaries. This is due to several factors:
+MPs' salaries — and therefore the PM's salary — were moved onto the same pay scale as senior civil servants, ending the annual ritual of politicians approving their own salary rises (this also meant an sizable pay hike to bring MPs up to the relevant scale)
+Money came to equal status in a way it previously had not
+And Margaret Thatcher made her salary a political point, claiming less than her full entitlement to encourage pay restraint in other sectors
It was soon after the shift in MPs' pay scales that some newspapers started to use phrases such as “earning more than the prime minister,” typically in reports about the remuneration of ministerial advisors and NHS bosses. Until then, salaries — and especially top salaries — were kept a “very dark secret,” says Prof. Bill Rubinstein, of the University of Aberystwyth, an expert on the history of the wealthy.
“Before World War II and up until the 1980s, there was no sensible research into how rich the rich were.”
But in the 1980s, Britain embraced the American method of measuring status — money. “Once it was about where one went to school, how much acreage one might own.” Little wonder this was the decade that spawned the Sunday TimesRich List, first published in April 1989, which sought to answer a question previously left unasked in polite company — who earns the most, and how?
When it came to pay transparency, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led the way. She consistently drew a cabinet minister's salary rather than a prime minister's, to encourage workers to take lower pay rises to save jobs and help fight inflation. But in the business world, few practiced what she preached. In the late 1980s, with the economy — and the City of London — bursting with renewed vigour, she complained about the incentives awarded to top executives. Often, their bonuses alone dwarfed her official salary of 64,257 pounds.
And the rewards offered for hard graft — and sporting talent — became much commented upon, with footballers suddenly earning stratospheric salaries and the rise of tabloid heroes such as Superhod, aka plasterer Max “Superhod” Quarterman. He first hit the headlines in the 1970s when a local newspaper worked out that the hard-working labourer earned more than Harold Wilson, the prime minister of the day. By the 1980s, he was a millionaire — and even more of a tabloid favourite.
There also started to be major anxiety among all politicians “to show restraint and keep a lid on spending,” say Prof. Theakston, hence Mrs. Thatcher going public with her salary cut. This continued when Labour came to power in 1997. Tony Blair ordered his cabinet not to accept increases recommended by the review body in 1996. When Gordon Brown took over, he refused part of his prime ministerial pay package, as has Mr. Cameron.
But while the prime minister earns less than many high flyers, compared with the average U.K. wage of 26,000 pounds, it's not too bad. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate