The door to No11 Downing Street might look indistinguishable from its iconic black neighbour at No10, but behind the Georgian facade lies a very different world. The four-bedroom flat at No11 has recently become a bolthole for several of the latest prime ministers and it is there, within the larger living space at the top of a large sweeping staircase, that history comes alive.
The walls of the family-friendly flat will have seen their fair share of intrigue and drama over the years but none likely to be as damaging as this week’s scandal over Boris Johnson’s spending on decor. The Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds moved into No11 last year and spent lockdown giving the place a major makeover. It is now the subject of a growing expenses scandal.
A leaked email has now revealed Tory peer Lord Brownlow donated £58,000 towards the project, adding that the donation should be attributed to the “soon-to-be-formed Downing Street Trust”. It has since been confirmed that Johnson has now paid for it himself. Prime ministers are given an annual public grant of £30,000 to spend on the Grade I-listed property but Johnson and Symonds aren’t the first to go over-budget. The Blairs are believed to have spent £127,000 before David and Samantha Cameron’s £64,000 upgrade.
But what the Blairs and Camerons did spend beyond the £30,000 allowance was paid out of their own pockets. Any money used from Tory party donors to add to that allowance could potentially be in breach of the ministerial code and parliamentary standard rules, even if Mr Johnson effectively paid the money back.
The works have been speculated to have cost as much as £200,000 thanks to Symonds’s hiring of eco designer Lulu Lytle, whose designs mimic the boho glamour of Symonds’s beloved club 5 Hertford Street and whose fabric prices start at £100 a metre. So why did Johnson and his fiancée need to embark on such a big project just months after his expensive divorce and when they only have one child together?
Symonds is widely quoted as having described Theresa May’s upgrade as a “John Lewis furniture nightmare” (a comment which will upset the majority of the country who like John Lewis decor) but the reality was the flat May inherited from the Camerons was spotless.
Unlike her precedessors, May and her husband Philip didn’t spend any money making major refurbishments to the flat, instead opting for a few key pieces of statement furniture. Among them: a red three-seater sofa; a £100 John Lewis chrome table lamp (presumably the target of Symonds’s comment); a £42 rose-scented Diptyque candle and a £195 Habitat glass-topped coffee table with a £25 Elemis Revitalise Me scent diffuser on top.
A photoshoot with the Sunday Times later showed the sofa covered with brown patterned throw cushions and the coffee table in front of a marble fireplace. A source familiar with the inside of the flat during May’s tenure said she changed very little.
Former PM Cameron and his wife spent six years at No 11 and with four children living there it needed a full make-over. It was painted white throughout, had new carpets downstairs and Samantha, a keen exponent of minimalist décor, had the grand staircase painted a charcoal black to add drama to the entrance. The hallway, sometimes used for family get-togethers, was hung with framed family pictures. She also added extensive bathroom makeovers and a new kitchen, including a £3,400 Britannia range cooker.
In the original Sixties-style kitchen, she opted for a minimalist refurb, with brushed-steel applications, floating shelves and a Dualit toaster and Rancilio coffee machine, worth about £130 and £500. A picture of Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama chatting on a mustard yellow sofa shows, her own which she had recovered in Notting Hill. The simple kitchen was kitted out with her favourite stainless steel utensils and rows of matching pots and pans.
Unlike Symonds, Mrs Cameron had trained as an interior decorator so would have been able to shave costs and nail bargains. Mrs Cameron also updated the cosy sitting room by covering the walls in stylish raffia wallpaper from John Lewis. Some of the costs of their refurbishment came from the flat’s annual £30,000 maintenance grant, while the Camerons picked up the rest of the bill themselves. The huge bedrooms upstairs remained very simple.
Like Samantha Cameron, Symonds also arrived pregnant and no one can blame her for wanting to make it her own. She and her fiancé may have had little furniture to bring to the flat given that they already own a £1.3million Camberwell townhouse together and Johnson’s sister Rachel told listeners on her LBC show this week that the “nice airy” flat probably needed “spiffing up” now they had a child.
But how did they rack up such a bill? With all the basics like the kitchen, bathrooms and carpets needing minimal updates, £100,000 could be seen as quite a sum. Former No10 aide Gavin Barwell told Times Radio this week that the flat was “perfectly nice” and he would have been happy to live there, but insiders say Symonds was keen to swap the “glum” decor left by the Camerons.
Friends have called her taste “exquisite” and she has reportedly spent the last year hand-restoring vintage furniture to replace the dark wooden furniture that was there before. Meanwhile the flooring in the very spacious hall has been stripped and polished and the living area, now often lit by candles, has been painted a deep green. This, however, does not add to £100,000.
The woman behind the lavish year-long makeover is leading interior expert Lulu Lytle, known as the saviour of British rattan. Rattan furniture, intricate textiles and marble bathrooms are among Lytle’s go-to looks, and her clients include interior designers, A-listers such as Mick Jagger and even royalty — Prince Charles took a tour of her famous Leicestershire rattan workshop last year.
Symonds’s turn working with Lytle won’t have come cheap. Johnson reportedly told one minister that his fiancée had ordered “gold wall coverings” and a full refit by Lytle is rumoured to run into six figures, with pieces chosen for their striking looks — Soane’s new Cleveland chair, covered in, say, tangerine leather, would cost about £3,000 without VAT.
Soane fabrics start at £100 a metre, so how much would it cost for her to dress the four-bed Georgian flat at Number 11? The exact square footage of No11 is unknown but given the average size of a UK four-bedroom residence is 140 square metres, wallpapering the flat with Lytle’s fabrics could cost upwards of £14,000 at a minimum. They say it’s often the small things that undo you — will Lytle’s gold wallpaper be Johnson’s unravelling?