Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.
It’s curtains for the Prime Minister. As well as a sofa and some wallpaper.
The Cash for Cushions (and sundry furnishings) saga seems a heady old school mix, combining Are You Being Served? with Yes, Prime Minister. On Wednesday, the John Lewis marketing team treated its devoted middle-Britain fan base to a masterclass in crisis management. Reports that the Johnson-Symonds’ household wanted to rid themselves of the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ at their No11 flat prompted the company to tweet.
With an image of one of its vans outside Downing Street captioned ‘a good thing we have a recycling service for pre-loved furniture’, its response was less musty Grace Brothers and more that other band of brothers; Sonny, Fredo and Michael Corleone. The company’s motto ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ should be replaced with Winston Churchill’s ‘Never Let a Crisis go to Waste’.
John Lewis’s fleet-footed riposte to the reported bashing of its brand is a lesson for Number Ten – and in particular for the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds. The former £80,000 a year Conservative Party communications’ chief seems to find it tricky to read the metaphorical room – especially, it seems, one decorated in anything from the lighting department in Peter Jones’ basement.
At the root of the current controversy over exactly who paid what and when for the refurb of the Prime Ministerial residence is concern about unaccountable influence over public policy.
Prime Ministers’ personal lives, which might include a taste for super-Sloane Soane soft furnishings, should not become a matter of public interest. And an unelected partner of any politician should never be suspected of meddling in policy.
Regrettably for Symonds, too many stories have appeared in the media about her sticking her oar in – for example, over badgers from being culled last summer, or the appointment of senior Downing Street staff.
Symonds’ supporters refuse to accept that any unaccountable influence wielded by her is a legitimate area of inquiry. Whenever the subject is brought up, unhelpfully for her, some, including Caroline Nokes, the Women and Equalities Committee Chair, attempt to shut it down with accusations of sexism and misogyny.
If anything is ‘dunked in 1950s sexism’ in Lord (Zac) Goldsmith’s memorable tweet attacking Symonds’ critic Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday, it is the outdated concept of the First Lord of the Treasury’s plus-one. Boundaries are blurred because 10 Downing Street is both Prime Ministerial home and workplace: there must be an enormous temptation for every day to be Take Your Squeeze to Work Day.
Just as voters do not pay good money for a ticket to a Premier League match to see footballers’ WAGs on the pitch, partners do not need to clutter up the Downing Street machine.
Johnson follows two female Prime Ministers – a decent-ish record for the Conservative Party, which has done much to get more women elected to Parliament and into local government in the past two decades.
Alas, for most of the year-long Covid crisis, the Government has chosen almost consistently to field an all-male team as its public face: Johnson, Hancock, Shapps, often Jenrick, with Sunak on the subs’ bench.
This snubbing of women who have actually gone to the trouble of getting themselves democratically elected makes the perceived reach of the unelected Symonds all the more toxic. What message does the Johnson administration and the Conservative Party want to send to women about their role in public life in 2021? The current power-behind-the-throne optics are less dunked than steeped.
Haunted by Bill Clinton’s assertion to US voters they would be getting two-for-the-price-of-one, Hillary Clinton could only look feminists in the eye when in her own right she became a Senator in 2001. Unhappily for this talented woman, her unpopularity as interfering First Lady would never be properly erased when it came to her Presidential bid in 2016.
In contrast to Clinton, the quantum chemist, Prof Joachim Sauer, has been so low profile he is almost invisible in Germany where his wife, Angela Merkel, has been Chancellor since 2005. The Sauer approach, emulated recently by Sarah Brown and Philip May, is surely the least corrosive to public goodwill.
During the week, it was reported that the magnificent Baroness Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker, was being reprimanded for not attending an unconscious bias training course put on the benefit of members of the House of Lords, the equally doughty Arlene Foster announced her resignation as Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader.
Less helpfully for any women seeking inspirational political role models, Ursula von der Leyen confided she felt ‘hurt and left alone’ after her own problems with furniture at a meeting with Turkey’s President Erdogan, when she was isolated on a sofa. Never mind left alone: didn’t the dignity of her office demand she immediately leave the meeting, rather than subsequently tweet that the episode showed ‘how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals’? Perhaps von der Leyen should be a tad more mindful of the Suffragette slogan ‘Deeds not Words’.
As a comms specialist, Symonds would surely acknowledge the genius of the John Lewis tweets. The Prime Minister’s declaration of love for the brand and Sir Keir’s stampede to a store is recognition of its place in voters’ hearts.
As a political insider, however, she might well have winced at the sight of the furniture van on Whitehall next to the wrought-iron Downing Street gates. Another trifling ‘farrago of nonsense’ beside those gates grew and grew into Pleb-gate until it was curtains for a Ministerial career.