Downing Street has spent more than £2.6m on renovations to hold White House-style press briefings – prompting a call for Boris Johnson to “hang his head in shame” given the 1% pay rise recommended for NHS staff.
The cost of the refurbishments for televised question and answer sessions with journalists at No 9 Downing Street will add to pressure facing the prime minister over the funding of a separate revamp to his official residence.
Labour questioned his priorities for shelling out millions on “vanity projects” while “picking the pockets” of NHS workers.
An extensive overhaul within No 9 Downing Street began last year as the government announced plans to hold televised briefings.
They will be fronted by Allegra Stratton, a former journalist who has also been head of strategic communications for the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and was credited with carefully crafting his image. As a politically appointed adviser rather than impartial civil servant, she is expected to be able to take aim at opponents as well as defend the government’s actions.
The launch of the briefings has been delayed indefinitely by the coronavirus pandemic.
It was revealed on Friday that the renovation costs have totalled £2,607,767, largely excluding VAT, following a freedom of information request from the Press Association.
The Cabinet Office said the amount “reflects” that No 9 is a Grade I-listed building.
“This will necessarily require one-off capital works, including audio-visual equipment, internet infrastructure, electrical works and lighting,” its response said.
“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.”
Breakdown of costs:
£1,848,695.12 for “main works”
£198,023.75 on “long lead items”
£33,394.63 on “broadband equipment”
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’s 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.”
The Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “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 frontline 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 Johnson faces pressure over the refurbishment of his official flat above No 11 overseen by his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.
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.