Downing Street refurbishment saga has proved catalyst for festering grievances and mutual loathing

Anne McElvoy
·3-min read
Senedd election (PA Wire)
Senedd election (PA Wire)

By dint of housing its leader in a cramped, ill-equipped townhouse-cum-office — and pitting the Chancellor and PM against each other for who gets to live in the better flat next door — Downing Street refurbishments tend to end up as windows into the souls of the inhabitants.

This World of (political) Interiors saga has spectacularly acted as a catalyst for a massive bonfire of festering grievances at the unstable court of Boris and Carrie. The £58,000 bill for a chic but pricey refurbishment with designs by Lulu Lytle caused Johnson such financial distress on top of his expensive divorce and other family obligations that he dispatched Eddie (Lord) Lister, his trusted fixer, to “sort it out” by tapping donors to cover the amount via a trust fund. Contrary to previous denials that this was simply exploratory, the transfer of the sum was agreed — which leaves Johnson squirming over a failure to record a political donation or benefit-in-kind.

But the bigger damage to the fabric of government (which is more precious even than the Lulu Lytle “Dianthus Chintz” variety) is how quickly the settling of scores between Cummings and allies of Carrie Symonds have snowballed into outbreaks of mutual loathing.

Multiple insiders remain convinced that the source of the leaks is Henry Newman, an adviser with fealty to Michael Gove as well as being close to Symonds, suspected of leaking the lockdown plan last October to stop the PM reneging on it. But this conviction, says another source who worked with Newman, is “all in Dom’s crazed mind — he’s bitter with Gove’s acolytes from the referendum campaign and it’s gone fully sociopathic”. Yesterday, the new Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, was hedging his bets on the leaks. Many believe Cummings himself might well be the “chatty rat”.

Another figure who feels maligned is the Health Secretary. Matt Hancock was astonished to be told to hand over his phone for investigation by security experts when he was watching one of his children play sport (the exercise did remove his name from the frame, but he was upset that No 10 had countenanced him being the leaker). Ministers are suspicious of a tendency on Team Boris to encourage critical scrutiny of ministers when the heat rises on the PM.

Johnson’s tetchy alleged comments, which he denies, about being prepared to have “bodies piling up” than a lockdown, which then proved unavoidable, is a reminder that the “blithe Boris’’ has not survived a bruising period in No 10 to date.

“He is hugely thin-skinned,” says one old friend. “Worried about money, fretful about annoying Carrie and on the edge a lot of the time.” It makes for a court in which few can be sure where their future lies — or whether they will be collateral damage in the next crisis (see: Allegra Stratton).

It is “one long game of Cluedo — there’s always a good chance of finding someone done in with the lead piping in the study. You just go in every week hoping it’s not you”. The only one who can change the mood is the figure least likely to do so — Boris, the prince of domestic mayhem.

Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist

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