If UK voters understand anything, it is property and the cost of doing it up: it has been the site of Britons’ most intense profit and pain over the last 20 years. That’s why anyone who believes that Boris Johnson will rise undamaged from this most recent scandal, is mistaken. The Downing Street décor fiasco is a story not of Johnson’s fabled connection to ordinary voters, but of his glaring differences from them. Unfortunately for him, as it is about wallpaper and curtains, it is also quickly and flashily comprehensible, unlike many political controversies which peter out as public interest in their tedious complexity wanes.
Our fascination encompasses both the frivolous and the fundamental, from the avid consumption of television home make-over shows to the bitter frustration of young and middle-aged people who are priced out of the property market. And the naming of Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, as “Carrie-Antoinette” is a more profound echo than many Twitter wits realise.
Marie-Antoinette, like Symonds after her, was entranced by the possibilities of interior design, and indulged her passion to the full in the Petit Trianon — her Versailles “folly”— as well as in the Chateau itself. She went so far as to commission a model rural village at the Petit Trianon, with 12 cottages clad in artfully distressed stucco to look like aged and cracked brickwork, concealing elegant comfort within. Similar flights of fancy were in vogue on the estates of her admiring aristocratic friends. The rumblings of popular discontent at the extravagance seemed churlish to them. “All that fuss about a Swiss village!” pronounced the Baronne d’Oberkirch after her visit.
“The cost is totally out of control, she’s buying gold wallpaper!” It could so easily have been Louis XVI complaining about his wife; but it is Boris Johnson fretting to aides about the lavish redecoration of his flat in Downing Street in 2021. Reportedly, the cost lies somewhere between £85,000 and £200,000 — small beer by Marie-Antoinette’s standards.
An anonymous “friend” told the newspapers that “Carrie has exquisite taste”. One might well ask why, if that is the case, Carrie had to pay such an exorbitant sum to the interior designer Lulu Lytle to choose wallpaper and sofas for her, rather than simply doing it herself. But that is to misunderstand the language of the milieu in which Symonds moves, or aspires to move. There, “taste” means the ability to select the correct interior designer.
That much Marie-Antoinette would certainly have understood. The problem was, however, that Marie-Antoinette’s eye-watering expenditure on interiors and fashions stood in stark contrast to the tightening circumstances of the French people. As David Garrioch notes in his book The Making of Revolutionary Paris, between the periods of 1726-41 and 1771-89 wages in Paris rose by about 17%, but the prices of necessities went up by 62%. Rents in Paris rose by 130-140%. Parisians generally were getting poorer: “the percentage of Parisians able to leave something to their children diminished across the century: an increasing proportion left only debts.”
Today, our Prime Minister is meant to be a public servant, yet Boris’s premiership carries a growing whiff of divine right. It grew stronger on Tuesday, amid one of those telling juxtapositions that politics has a way of casting up. Even as the war of Johnson’s wallpaper hogged the headlines, another wall-covering made a more modest and tragic story. It lay in the news that the Commons had voted down a House of Lords amendment which would have protected leaseholders from being forced to meet the exorbitant expense of making their homes safe in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire.
The cause of that inferno, which left 72 people dead, was unsafe external cladding. And homeowners in similarly affected buildings — below the 18m height which qualifies for government help — can now be held liable for the cost of altering cladding which was never their fault in the first place. Often at the lower end of the income scale, they now find themselves facing bills upwards of £25,000, and in some cases as much as £100,000.
Without the necessary repairs, which so many can little afford, these residents’ homes are both potentially dangerous and unsellable. Their dream of owning property — which Margaret Thatcher once nurtured so effectively among working-class and lower-middle-class voters — has turned to an inescapable nightmare. And the decision to abandon these property-owners to their fate has been taken by the Conservative Party under the leadership of Boris Johnson.
Nor are they the only voters in dire straits. We have not yet reckoned on the degree of economic devastation caused by the Covid pandemic, but it seems clear that a significant proportion of those who were already struggling are now sinking. A Resolution Foundation survey in January found that household spending decreased among the highest-earning families with children since the onset of Covid-19, but increased almost as noticeably among the lowest-earning ones. As the health effects of the pandemic begin to ease, the social cost will become ever more glaring.
The Electoral Commission investigation into the Number 11 redecoration will play out against this backdrop. It will unfurl partly as entertainment — the whole country now yearns to gawp at the ridiculously expensive refurbishment — and partly as fodder for genuine outrage. Although Johnson is the one officially in charge, or supposed to be, there is already a powerful element of cherchez la femme, just as there was in the late 18th century, when Marie-Antoinette was routinely depicted as a spendthrift, libidinous schemer who ran rings round her hapless husband. In her later years that was increasingly unfair, and the feverish libels against her were often malicious and untrue, but the die had been cast.
King Louis XVI, however, once mistakenly imagined that popular devotion to the French monarchy was unassailable, just as Boris believes himself perpetually lovable simply for being Boris. He dislikes being held to the rules by which others are routinely judged. But it’s the brazen contrasts that infuriate people in the end. The cladding and the wallpaper. The hardship and the profligacy. In at-risk flats across the country “ordinary, hard-working people” — the kind many Tories once considered their natural electorate — are being driven to financial desperation by the cost of fixing life-threatening construction flaws that they played no part in creating.
Not only did their Prime Minister break his earlier promise to support them, but his political energies are entirely focused elsewhere: on preposterous expenses which he seemingly sought to palm off on party donors.
I’m not sure he sees it yet, but the walls are closing in.