‘Cash for chintz’: Why questions over Boris Johnson’s flat refurb costs matter

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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Keir Starmer chose coronavirus as his Prime Minister’s Questions topic for ten successive weeks last year, before dipping his toes into the more perilous waters of Brexit in December. He returned to the pandemic as his focus for a couple of sessions, but since then has opted for the most newsy attack line that would expose government inaction and cast the Tories as desperately out of touch with ordinary concerns: a police data loss, border controls, the cladding scandal, armed forces numbers and violence against women have all featured. It looks likely we will now see the Labour leader pick the subject of Tory sleaze for the third week in a row.

I call the scandal ‘cash for chintz’ in the knowledge that it is actually rattan for which Carrie Symonds’ favourite designer is best-known. Chintz does speak to the maximalism that defines her work, though, and it is alliterative(ish). But taking off my old House and Garden magazine hat to replace it with one more appropriate to my current employer… this is not the detail that Westminster cares for. The bubble has (proudly) recognised that most people think John Lewis is pretty damn posh. The suggestion that the 11 Downing Street flat residents could put the words “John Lewis nightmare” together is bound to go down badly with anyone more likely to buy a can of Dulux than commission bespoke gold wallpaper when doing up their home, i.e. basically everyone.

The Greensill scandal was confusing. Rishi Sunak’s texts to David Cameron, promising he’ll “push the team” to accommodate the former Prime Minister, did make the whole thing clearer. But Boris Johnson was not at the centre of the row. Fuelled by the vengeful Dom Cummings, the latest stories are different – and there is a growing number of allegations that are being made public and not being denied. The refurbishment costs “have been met by the Prime Minister personally”, No 10 said yesterday. “Conservative Party funds are not being used for this.” Note the present tense. The government is happy to talk about the current situation now it’s been ‘fixed’, but journalists are interested in the undeclared loans that may have come before.

A lot of people seem to like Johnson because they think he doesn’t take himself too seriously, nor this politics lark. His clear disdain for how everything at the top should work marries well with the cynical attitude understandably held by many voters, as described astutely by Martha Gill earlier this year. The problem for the Prime Minister is if his image doesn’t only portray a man inappropriately negligent at a time of crisis, but also an actively cruel man. “Let the bodies pile high” (denied) and “let it rip” (not denied) are nasty, not funny, comments. Sleaze is nasty, too. Pouring the energies of civil servants into finding ways to fund the expensive redecoration of your home, while thousands die of Covid? That’s definitely nasty. Johnson skilfully separated himself from ‘the nasty party’ in 2019, but the two are looking increasingly similar.

There will be a minute’s silence at midday for International Workers’ Memorial Day at the National Covid Memorial Wall in London. It is made up of 150,000 painted hearts, one for each life lost to coronavirus in the UK. Labour’s Rachel Reeves will join top trade union figures to “walk the wall” with members of bereaved families. The labour movement has come together to call on the Prime Minister now to set a date for the independent public inquiry into the Covid response. It is still not the “appropriate time”, we’re told by a government spokesperson, because the focus is on vaccines and restrictions. They say this as if we are unaware that officials are busy dealing with a row over Johnson’s flat. What other nasty revelations yet to emerge could be worrying the Prime Minister? Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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