Boris Johnson's Wallpaper Is a Gamble on Britain's Class Divisions

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Trust the British to turn a tale of political sleaze into a story about class and the price of expensive furnishings. But the recent shenanigans in the ruling Conservative Party reveal a lot about the ruling elite in British politics: As in the U.S., it now routinely aspires to the wealth, luxury and lifestyle of the global superrich. The gulf between the top 5% and the rest has never looked so wide, nor been so apparent in everything from vacation choices to home decorations. For the leader of a country, that can be hard to accept.  

Hence the lack of real surprise at Boris Johnson’s latest spot of bother. He’s been accused of underhand ways of funding an up-do of No. 10 Downing Street and a lack of transparency over what happened when a party donor was asked to help with an expensive overrun in his redecorating bill. The prime minister believes the British public is unfussed by this “cash for curtains” scandal, but class is dangerous territory in the U.K. — even for someone as gifted as Johnson at bridging the divide.

British political scandals used to be simple. Labour Party politicians from middling or lower income families were brought down for financial impropriety and branded hypocrites for betraying their socialist ideals — going back to the moneymen around Harold Wilson in the 1970s and Tony Blair’s fast-buck era before the Lehman Brothers crash. Wealthy Conservative MPs, who portrayed themselves as guardians of family values, would be exposed in the tabloid newspapers for having extramarital affairs and paying escorts. In short, the British left succumbed to Mammon, the right to sexual imbroglios.

Recently, though, the trend has reversed for the Tories. The modernizing former prime minister David Cameron merrily lobbied old chums in government, the Treasury and the Bank of England on behalf of the now bankrupt supply-chain finance company, Greensill Capital, hoping to profit from his multimillion-pound share options. Meanwhile, Conservative politicians’ cronies are accused of securing lucrative contracts to supply personal protective equipment to the National Health Service.

Johnson, a man who rarely thinks the rules apply to him, has flirted with both types of scandal before. Once the subject of innumerable stories about mistresses and a child born outside his acknowledged relationships, the prime minister is now subject to several official inquiries over “Wallpapergate.” The source of the revelations is thought to be Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, plotting revenge after he was fired last year. 

On the face of it, simultaneous allegations about Johnson’s verbal explosion after a September government meeting — “no more f***ing lockdowns; let the bodies pile high in their thousands” — should have been far more damaging. But no, the most eye-catching leak for many Brits was how far he and fiancee Carrie Symonds sought to live in modern luxury. Lulu Lytle, their interior designer, isn’t cheap.

Symonds reportedly sought out 840 pounds ($1,165) a roll wallpaper and other opulent delights to replace the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” bequeathed by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. Culturally, this is like wealthy Americans sneering at Sears. 

The John Lewis department store is a sturdy icon of the British high street, priced reasonably enough for middle-class pockets. Couples have their wedding lists there (I worked in one of its stores rolling furniture around to help pay for college, so naturally feel defensive on the matter). Lulu Lytle is a designer for those with deeper pockets. To pay her bill, 58,000 pounds above the official 30,000 pounds allowance for refurbishment, it appears a party donor was approached.

Tatler magazine, a stout defender of privileged Brits, asked why shouldn’t the prime minister have a nice place to live: Symonds just wanted to make an elegant home for the couple in the not especially big apartment. Many other democracies house their leaders in far swankier style — Downing Street is no Elysee Palace. U.S. President Joe Biden is famous for his modest tastes but he has Air Force One and a large Oval Office staff at his disposal. 

But a prime minister who won an election by promising to level-up living standards in the north of England and who waves a populist banner on Brexit and soccer is in danger of looking like a privileged snob. That isn’t entirely accurate in Johnson’s case: His tastes run to takeout pizza, cheap plonk and beat-up old cars. Those who know him best accuse him of being a bit tight with his money.

The Johnson-appointed chief of the civil service has been asked to look into the affair and the prime minister also asked Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s former private secretary, to advise him on what interests should be registered. That failed to head off the U.K. Electoral Commission, official invigilator of political probity and money. The commission says it has “reasonable grounds to believe an offence had occurred.”

Does it matter? Johnson says the public “don’t give a monkey’s about the leaks.” True, his government is still comfortably leading Labour in the polls ahead of local elections next week, but the story taps into a deeper anxiety that the U.K.’s leaders feel entitled to stuff beyond the dreams of ordinary folk. While Brits might be amused by Johnson’s poshness, or his reciting ancient Greek, fairness is a big deal right now. Part of Brexit’s motivation was an attack on the Cameron and Blair elites. 

Unlike Cameron’s, Johnson’s wealth is precarious. His schooling at Britain’s exclusive Eton College was paid for by an academic scholarship. Only in recent years as a newspaper columnist and biographer has his income matched his ambitions, and most of those earnings were surrendered on taking high office, the residue depleted by alimony and child support. As the most controversial PM of recent decades, he’ll be much in demand on leaving office. 

Although the British are right to keep their leaders’ spending within reasonable bounds, the chief executive does need decent private quarters to retire to from his hard-pressed job. In bequests to the nation, private benefactors of the past have given prime ministers and their colleagues country residences for weekend retreats. It would be sensible to provide extra cash upfront for No. 10’s upkeep.

As so often in scandals, it’s the cover-up rather than the misdemeanor that has got the perpetrator in trouble. Johnson’s way out of this is to admit he’d made a misjudgment in letting a trivial matter balloon into an affair of state. He should apologize and the country should set about housing its leaders in smart but not Louis XIV style.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

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