It was reported this week that last year, as the UK government considered imposing a third national lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told colleagues he would “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” before imposing any other COVID restrictions. While this comment, which the government has strongly denied as a “lie”, is incendiary in a country that has seen over 127,000 deaths in the pandemic, it is somehow being overshadowed by questions over who paid to redecorate the Prime Minister’s flat.
The money trail behind a saga that the opposition Labour Party has dubbed the “cash for curtains” is currently obsessing British politics, and raising questions of class and corruption at the heart of British government.
The facts of the matter are this: British Prime Ministers get a budget of £30,000 a year to renovate their accommodation in Downing Street, which houses the official residences of the Prime Minister and chancellor. This apparently wasn’t enough for Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds, who oversaw an opulent refurbishment of the four-bedroom flat in Number 11 Downing Street, next door to the iconic seat of British Prime Ministers at Number 10 (there is more space in Number 10 Downing Street, and Prime Ministers and their families in recent years have tended to live there). The refurbishment is speculated to have cost as much as £200,000 after consultation with “eco interior-designer” Lulu Lytle.
High-society magazine Tatler reported that Symonds was desperate to overhaul the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” that had been left by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May. John Lewis is a British department store with a reputation for good quality, but not particularly cheap household products, and has very particular lower-upper-middle class cultural connotations. It is what many Brits might describe as “a bit fancy”, and most Conservative Party officials probably shop there. To suggest that you can’t live with John Lewis furniture is an act of snobbery that places you among a tiny section of the elite of British class society. It’s like a line Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development might come up with if she was British, or saying flying business class is ghastly compared to flying first class.
Speaking on Thursday, Johnson said: “The one thing I object to in this whole farrago of nonsense is I love John Lewis.” Nevertheless, pundits are saying that it makes the Prime Minister look out of touch. One went so far as to say it “feels egregiously extravagant and at odds with the prime minister’s levelling-up agenda”, referring to his promises to develop “left behind” post-industrial areas of the county. Symonds is being referred to as “Carrie Antoinette”.
Labour leader Keir Starmer aligned himself with John Lewis customers, with his spokesperson saying that his wedding list was with John Lewis. Such signifiers of class identity are believed to carry weight in British politics, with “Mondeo man” being identified as the sort of voter Labour needed to attract at the 1997 election, referring to a type of man who would drive the mid-ranged Ford family car.
While the optics of a Prime Minister spending large sums of money making his flat look like a colonial governor’s mansion might be what ultimately sticks, the deeper scandal is whose money he spent in the first place, and whether he adhered to the rules.
Last week the Daily Mail reported that a Conservative Party donor had given the party £58,000 towards the cost of the renovation. A leaked email discussed the donation made by Tory peer Lord Brownlow “on behalf of the soon to be formed 'Downing Street Trust' – of which I have been made chairman”. The Trust was reportedly set up to preserve Downing Street’s heritage and décor.
Johnson has repeatedly said that he met the cost of the refurbishment personally. However, he has repeatedly refused to answer questions about who paid in the first place. The question remains whether the donation from Lord Brownlow became a personal loan to the Prime Minister, or if Johnson personally paid the party back for the £58,000.
Questions of who funded the renovation have been hanging around for months, but the scandal erupted this week after former Downing Street chief adviser Dominic Cummings wrote a blog post saying that he had discussed plans with the Prime Minister to “have donors secretly pay for the renovation”, and that he had advised that they were “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.”
This latest round of scandal has its roots in a messy feud between Symonds and Cummings.
Credited as the architect of Vote Leave – the victorious campaign that won the Brexit referendum – Cummings was invited into Downing Street as the Prime Minister's chief adviser after Johnson won the election in December 2019.
Believing himself a genius, Cummings set out to shake up what he saw as the ossified institutions of British state. He became a household name in April 2020 after taking a 30-mile drive to a castle to “test his vision” at the height of Britain’s first national coronavirus lockdown.
He left Downing Street 11 months after he arrived after losing a power-struggle with allies of the Prime Minister’s wife, the Friends of Carrie or “FoCs”. Symonds, a former Conservative Party press officer, had become an alternative source of power within Number 10 to rival that of the weird and confrontational chief adviser. She blocked the promotion of a Cummings ally, Lee Cain, to head of communications. This led to Cummings’ departure, to the delight of many in the Conservative Party.
And while a tumultuous era within the heart of British government seemed to have come to an end, Cummings – described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a “career psychopath” – hasn’t gone away. He is believed to have compiled a “dossier of bombshells” from his time in Downing Street designed to damage the Prime Minister. He has had to deny that he is that “chatty rat” behind this string of damaging leaks – including Johnson’s denied “let the bodies pile high” comment.
The renovation scandal went into overdrive on Wednesday, as the Electoral Commission said it had “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”. It has launched an investigation that would allow it to call on evidence from anyone it felt necessary including the Prime Minister, and to access documents by court order.
An hour after the investigation was launched, Johnson faced repeated questions about the affair at Prime Minister’s Questions, including being straightforwardly asked, “are you a liar?” by the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford. Johnson also launched an angry tirade against Labour leader Starmer when questioned on the issue by the Labour leader.
Starmer has called for an inquiry and for Johnson to publish the full details of the refurbishment. Johnson has so far failed to do so. Johnson is insisting that there is “nothing to see here” and repeating the line that he has now personally paid for the renovation, while failing to answer questions about who paid the invoice in the first place.
With an investigation hanging over the Prime Minster that could last for months, some Conservative MPs are wishing that he would bite the bullet and come clean now. Many are said to be sweating at the thought of what further bombshells Cummings might be preparing to drop, and how much damage they could be before the local elections that are happening next week. All this, over some curtains.