It was a piece of singular brilliance from Private Eye to do a speculative search on county court judgments (CCJs) and see if the prime minister’s name turned up. Imagine the delight in the office when there it was, as recent as last October, with “10 Downing Street” as the address, for an unpaid amount – to an unknown creditor – of £535. It was too good (and we all know how that ends) to be true. Downing Street successfully struck out the CCJ in a nanosecond; it was apparently a mischievous claim for defamation from a Covid conspiracy theorist, and you can add your own conspiracy theory here if that’s your poison.
Personally, I’m relieved. For an entire morning, I was experiencing the most unsettling mood change towards the prime minister: fellow-feeling.
I had a CCJ in 1994. I can pinpoint it so precisely without looking it up because my life as an adult essentially stopped at that point and didn’t resume until six years later, when the CCJ expired. Even if you don’t use credit very much, you still need to be worthy of it in order to live normally – well, in order to live anywhere. To sign a tenancy agreement, to get a mortgage – that kind of basic roof-over-your-head stuff.
This is how it happens. First, you need to believe that the debt is just going to evaporate: whomever you owe money to – mine was a credit card company – is just going to forget about you and move on, like someone you insulted on a train.
I don’t know why I thought that, but, in my defence, I’d had terrible and contradictory financial role models. My mother’s mantra was “debt casts a shadow over your entire life”; she would have been horrified to know that I had a credit card in the first place. My father, meanwhile, was a trickster, which is an affectionate, filial way to say petty criminal.
Once, he hid his stereo on top of a wardrobe with a blanket over it and then claimed it on the insurance. The insurance company sent someone to his house to verify the claim. This person’s idea of getting to the bottom of it was to ask what my dad did for a living. “I’m a forensic psychologist,” he said, with aplomb, and the insurance guy said: “I see myself as a bit of one of those,” and then they went for a pint. Not only is this true, but it was also one of my dad’s favourite stories: the best £800 he ever earned (stereos, by the way, young people, used to be mad expensive).
So, I had some pretty mixed messages. I would always stop short of actual crime, but you can see how I might think debt could disappear under a blanket.
Anyway, here you are: you have a debt, you can’t pay it and it keeps getting bigger. The bigger it gets, the less you want to think about it. Your foundational optimism delusion leads you to think that, if it gets too out of hand, everyone will realise you’re not good for it and get bored.
This is when the letters start. They explain really carefully, often with the judicious use of capital letters and red ink, that no one is at all bored. They spell out what will happen next. Sometimes, they will put in a debt helpline, to signal: “We’re still human beings. We don’t want you to perish. But this is as human as it gets.” Quite a long time before it gets to a CCJ, they start telling you what a CCJ will mean. By this stage, most of the ink is red and the interval between each letter has decreased. The envelopes change colour as well, a baroque and unnecessary touch, since, by this time, you’re not opening any of your post.
Eventually, you get a county court claim. This would be the right time to open the letter, respond directly to the creditor, seek debt advice and agree on a payment schedule. Only, of course, if you were that kind of person, you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. Anyway, you had only two weeks to respond, even if you had intended to. Sure enough, you now have a CCJ.
And this is where it gets serious. If you miraculously find the money to pay your debt in the next month, you can get the judgment removed from the register; otherwise, the best you can normally hope for is to get it marked as “satisfied”.
Poor PM, I thought. What if he loses his job in some kind of general election? He can forget migrating his work phone to a personal account. He’ll have to get a pay-as-you-go burner. He’ll also have to remain in the same relationship, so there’s someone else to sign hire-purchase agreements and whatnot, or leap from a relationship with one creditworthy person to another, which … OK, maybe he can make that work. Nevertheless, for a short window, he was a real human being, buffeted from one chaotic life event to another, just trying to keep his head above water long enough that nothing turned into a bailiff situation, at least not while there were any heads of state visiting. Thank God all that sympathy was misplaced.