John Lewis: rich woman’s nightmare, poor woman’s dream

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Carrie Symonds is at the heart of a scandal over her refurbishment of the flat above 11 Downing Street that she shares with the Prime Minister (PM) Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, their son Wilf and rescue dog Dilyn. She has allegedly spent £200,000 on it, which is £170,000 over the annual grant of £30,000 the PM receives from the taxpayer to ‘maintain’ the flat. (Yes, you read that right: the PM gets £30,000 every year.) Ms Symonds, or Carrie-Antoinette as she has now been nick-named on Twitter, allegedly justified her excesses by slating the décor she inherited as Theresa May’s “John Lewis furniture nightmare.”

The Guardian has described the staff-owned John Lewis partnership, which as well as department stores also owns Waitrose supermarkets, as ‘cherished’. You’d think committed Brexiters would love it, given its ‘plucky Brit’ history and democratisation of ownership. Or is that the wrong kind of democracy for them? The original founder, John Lewis, was an orphan boy who was brought up by a maiden aunt in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. After an apprenticeship with a local draper, he moved to London where he eventually became a successful retailer. After John Lewis’s demise, his sons transformed the company into a partnership. One of them, Spedan Lewis, signed away his personal ownership rights in a growing retail company to allow future generations of partners to take forward his ‘experiment in industrial democracy’. 

One of our local MPs, Ben Bradshaw (Exeter), was among the first to come to the defence of John Lewis, describing it as one of Britain’s “favourite brands”, being “reliable, good value and upmarket”.

It is really quite extraordinary to see the PM’s companion talking down a major British brand as she did. Personally, I always consider a trip to our local John Lewis store in Dorset to be a bit of a treat, and I’d love to be given £30,000 to spend in there, but then I’m not as ‘Boho chic’ as Carrie-Antoinette. Guesting on the Bunker podcast, writer Emma Kennedy suggested the PM’s fiancée’s disdain of John Lewis made her come across as a middle-class person trying to present themselves as upper class. There may be something in that analysis, what with reports of £840-a-roll gold wallpaper, a £9,800 baby bear sofa and fabric starting at £100 a metre. According to Tatler, Ms Symonds’s goal is to turn the flat into a ‘high society haven’.

One of the reasons Johnson may be going along with the project is that despite his companion’s comment about Theresa May’s John Lewis furniture nightmare, it was not Mrs May (or even her husband, who would have had that role) who last decorated the flat. That honour fell to the Camerons. Samantha painted the flat white throughout, made it more family-friendly and put in a brushed-steel kitchen. I once asked two former Tory grandees (both have now left the party) why Johnson still had it in for Cameron, after ousting him as PM and even as an MP. “It is deeply personal,” they told me. “Deeply personal.” Might Johnson’s antipathy to ‘everything Cameron’ be driving some of the Versailles-style excess?

Does the public give a monkey’s?

The Prime Minister can’t be expected to live in a skip,” the vituperative Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, aka Mrs Michael Gove, told Nick Robinson on Radio 4 on April 28. Well, no, but the PM is not being asked to live in a skip, is he? He is being asked to live within his means and £30,000 is a generous tax-payer funded grant for the refurbishment of a four-bedroomed flat. This is typical Tory hyperbole. “Unless you let me spend £200,000 on a makeover, you are forcing me to live in a skip.”

It is such a foolish thing to say. What message does it send to everyone? All you people out there who haven’t spent hundreds of thousands of pounds decorating your homes, or who have had the temerity to decorate it with John Lewis furniture, or worse still, lesser brands (assemble it yourself IKEA furniture is unmentionable) – you are living in a skip!

Other party-faithful pundits are trying to spin Carrie’s faux-pas (about the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’) as a misattribution. It was not Carrie who said that, they claim, but rather the Tatler journalist, Anne McElvoy, using artistic licence and putting words into her mouth. That would be the journalist who wrote the article after speaking to Carrie Symonds about her refurb project. Ms McElvoy stands by the quote:

The most rancid of political gossips, ‘Guido Fawkes’, has taken a different tack. He is claiming Carrie Symonds is a fan of John Lewis and shops there all the time. He has published a photograph of boxes of John Lewis merchandise being delivered to Number 10. No date, of course, or proof that Carrie Symonds, who lives at Number 11 Downing Street, not Number 10, was the intended recipient. But this is where we are, as the PM’s comms team desperately tries to back-pedal.

Johnson and every minister who has been wheeled out to defend him or to stonewall, or both, have been emphatic that the public is not interested in curtains, sofas and wallpaper. Yes, they are literally telling us what we think now, but on this they may have a point. While there has been some salacious curiosity about what Simon Mills called “the eclectic, expensively mismatched aesthetic” of Carrie’s friend, Lulu Lytle — high society interior designer, founder of the Soane Company, and rubber of shoulders with royalty — it is not the focal point of the public’s interest.

This is a country obsessed by ‘Line of Duty’, a TV programme about corruption in the highest echelons of the Establishment and rooting out ‘bent coppers’. When Superintendent Ted Hastings of anti-corruption unit AC-12, made an impassioned speech about “a bare-faced liar promoted to public office”, asking, “What has happened to us? When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?”, social media heaved. It felt like a thermo-nuclear surge, as people across the land punched the air and cheered at their TV. Ted Hastings was speaking for the nation. Indeed, first the Leader of the Opposition, then the PM himself (to lesser effect) cited Ted Hastings and AC-12 in the next Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).

Curtains, sofas and wallpaper? No, we are not interested, but we do care about how it was all financed, and that is where some very bent practices that would excite the interest of AC-12 itself come into play. Why should donors’ money be considered of greater significance than our votes? It is important that the Tory Party’s finances and those of its leader be transparent, otherwise classic conflicts of interest could arise whenever the PM is tempted to put the interests of party and donors above those of the country. The danger of secret donations having a corrosive effect on our democracy cannot be stressed enough.

Timeline of a refurb carried to excess

Knock me down with a proverbial feather, but the newspaper that has led this investigation is the pro-Brexit, pro-Government, pro-Johnson Daily Mail. From their various articles on the matter, it is possible to construct the following timeline.

February 2020: The PM’s team first become alarmed at the rate of spending on the refurbishment of N°11 Downing Street, which had been ongoing since the New Year (and would continue throughout 2020).

“The cost is totally out of control – she’s buying gold wallpaper!” the PM is alleged to have raged. When asked how much Carrie-Antoinette was spending, he complained, “Tens and tens of thousands – I can’t afford it.”

March 2020: Johnson first thought of asking Lord Bamford, CEO of construction firm JCB, a Tory donor who has given in excess of £10 million to the Party. He was dissuaded from doing so. (By now, Johnson had missed the first five COBRA meetings to discuss the rapidly escalating pandemic.)

Then the inner circle hit on the idea of setting up a charity with the aim of preserving the fabric of Downing Street, modelled on the White House Trust. However, although the trust was pitched as being for the entire Downing Street estate, it was clear the charity was being set up to pay off Johnson’s debt of £58,000, and that would not be considered to be a charitable purpose. Still, this idea lingered for a while, even as people were losing their jobs and hopes of future home-ownership due to the covid19 pandemic.

June 2020: Lord Brownlow, another of the party’s major donors, was asked to head the board of trustees of the putative charity to save Johnson’s financial skin.

July 2020: Lord Darling, former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, was approached to sit on the board of the trust. Concerned that that the project could attract the unwanted attention from donors who might want favours from the PM or a peerage, he turned the invitation down.

September 2020: The Times published a ‘woe is me’ article about Johnson: “Overburdened, underpaid and ‘misery on his face’: Boris Johnson gets the blues”.

October 2020: Lord Brownlow made a £73,000 donation to the Party. In the covering email (which was leaked to the Daily Mail), he said,

“Further to our conversation, I am making a donation to the Party today as we discussed. It includes the £15,000 you and I have agreed – plus £58,000 to cover the payments the Party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed ‘Downing Street Trust’ – of which I have been made Chairman, as you know.”

There is nothing improper in these donations. Generous to a fault although he might be, Lord Brownlow has not done anything wrong. The £15,000 for general party funds was duly declared, but not the remaining £58,000. It is the Party’s failure to declare the donations fully within 28 days (we are now six months on), and its possible use for an improper purpose, that is a potential breach of electoral law. It has now been declared to be the subject of an investigation by the Electoral Commission, which has commented that there are “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred.” 

Incidentally, the Downing Street Trust has still not been set up after a year of trying, and the Head of the Civil Service, Simon Case, testified before a Select Committee recently that it could not cover renovations to private areas of the estate anyway. That appears to be the end of that.

Meanwhile, the Tory Party has been furiously briefing that the PM has paid the money back and it was only ever a loan. The question is one of timing. The Party made the payments, which it expected to be able to cover with Lord Brownlow’s donation, before October last year. Six months on, when newspapers begin to show an interest in the financial machinations behind Carrie-Antoinette’s makeover project, the PM suddenly declared he will pay for the excess after all? If you believe that, I have a garden bridge I would like to sell you.