Prime Minister, be warned: you besmirch the good name of John Lewis at your peril

·5-min read
John Lewis: a national institution - Paul Grover/PA
John Lewis: a national institution - Paul Grover/PA

Personally, I think Boris Johnson should look on the bright side. Things could easily be worse. Take the latest political news from Scotland. According to the Daily Record, a campaigner for the new nationalist party Alba is a convicted murderer who, in 1992, stabbed his best man in the eye and battered him with a claw hammer.

I’d like to see Alex Salmond try and wave that story away. “What I’m finding on the doorstep is that people want to talk about our plans for this great country, not the latest media tittle-tattle about who’s murdered whom…”

In my view, that story rather puts the Prime Minister’s troubles into perspective. All the same, he does seem to be having a rough time over the revamp of his Downing Street flat – or, as the saga has been christened by tabloid sub-editors, “Cash for curtains”.

The focus of attention has been on the mystery over the revamp’s funding. But even if it turns out that the funding was above board, there’s another aspect to this story that I fear could do the Prime Minister greater damage. And that’s the motivation behind the revamp.

It’s been widely reported that Mr Johnson and Carrie Symonds simply couldn’t bear the way the Downing Street flat used to look – because it was, apparently, “a John Lewis furniture nightmare”.

What an extraordinary suggestion. John Lewis furniture? A nightmare?

I’m sorry, Prime Minister, but this cannot be allowed to stand. John Lewis is a proud British institution, beloved by millions. And woe betide the politician, or politician’s fiancée, who dares to besmirch its good name. When you look down your nose at John Lewis, you look down your nose at the British people. We like our John Lewis furniture. We paid good money for it – out of our own pockets, no less. So it would be awful to think that, behind our backs, the political elite are wincing and sniggering and calling it common.

As it happens, my wife and I are in the middle of a revamp ourselves. We’re doing up our living room. And our first port of call, quite naturally, was John Lewis. At the weekend, we went to the Bluewater branch and picked out a Barbican corner-end sofa in Saga Latte polyester, and an Enville Art Deco-style armchair.

At the time, we were delighted with our purchases. Yet now we find ourselves worried sick that, should we ever invite the Prime Minister and his fiancée to dine at our Gravesend home, they’ll be so aghast at our desperately déclassé furniture that they’ll hastily mumble their excuses, leap back into the limo, and any hope of an OBE will be out of the window.

Still, perhaps sniffiness about John Lewis is more pervasive than we realised. On Radio 4 yesterday, the wife of Michael Gove attempted to defend the PM and his fiancée by arguing that they “can’t be expected to live in a skip” and need “decent furnishings”.

Then again, the Goves do have very refined tastes. During the expenses scandal of 2009, Mr Gove agreed to repay £7,000 he’d spent on furniture. A third of it had been spent at an interior design firm founded by Viscountess Astor, David Cameron’s mother-in-law. Next to that, I suppose poor little John Lewis doesn’t quite cut it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the PM and Ms Symonds are snobs. After all, snobs look down on anyone who buys furniture full stop – because the real upper crust inherit all theirs. The late Alan Clark – Tory minister, best-selling diarist and owner of a castle in Kent – famously pitied Michael (now Lord) Heseltine as a mere “arriviste” who “bought all his own furniture”.

Exquisite as their homes may be, however, I can’t say I envy the upper class. What a pain it must be, not being able to buy a new sofa for fear of losing face. Imagine the awkward conversations you’d end up having.

“I say, Aunt Araminta, I do admire that chaise longue of yours. In fact, I could rather do with one myself. Would you mind awfully popping your clogs some time soon, so that I can have it?”

And while we’re on the subject, goodness knows where the upper class get their TVs. Presumably they can’t pass off a 65-inch LG OLED flatscreen as an heirloom their great-great-grandfather brought back from the Raj.

But back to the matter in hand. Mr Johnson and his fiancée may not share Middle England’s taste in home decor. At the very least, though, they should remember what a painful 12 months John Lewis has had. Before the pandemic it was a hugely profitable business, but last year it made a loss of £517m. It’s gone from having 51 stores to 34. Surely the PM doesn’t want to be seen to kick a great British brand when it’s down?

A man of his sharp political instincts will be eager to atone for this unfortunate PR own goal as soon as possible. By the weekend, I expect to see Ms Symonds dispatched to Bluewater John Lewis, where she will be photographed swooning over footstools and simpering at a bin.

You can read Michael Deacon’s column every Wednesday. Click here to read last week's column

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