Does charity begin at Boris Johnson's chintzed-up home?

Helen Pidd
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

“My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best,” wrote Winston Churchill. But what is best to one prime minister can easily be the worst to their successor – or, more often, their spouse.

According to reports, Carrie Symonds has apparently decided to ring the changes in No 11 Downing Street – planning a makeover for the four-bedroom flat so expensive that the government might have to set up a charity to pay for it.

In America, the White House routinely asks private donors for millions of dollars to pay for interior design, antiques and art. But in Britain, taxpayers have traditionally stumped up £30,000 a year towards the prime minister’s living accommodation.

This, it seems, is nowhere near enough.

Johnson is said to have balked at the cost of the redesign, allegedly asking if the wallpaper was made out of gold.

Which begs two important questions: what on earth do they want to do? And who on earth would be prepared to pay for it?

His fiancee’s taste is apparently inspired by an interior designer called Lulu Lytle, whose chintzy aesthetic is the polar opposite of the pared-back Scandi chic favoured by Samatha Cameron, the last prime ministerial consort to have a proper go at making over 11 Downing Street (Philip May scarcely touched a thing during his three-year sojourn).

Whereas the Camerons liked things to look shiny and new, Lytle specialises in making new things look old. She runs a company called Soane Britain, which designs and makes antique-inspired furniture, upholstery, lighting, fabrics, wallpapers and “interior necessities”.

According to her website, Soane products “can be seen all over the world in many fine hotels and restaurants, private members’ clubs, boardrooms, retail showrooms, yachts and private houses”.

Think four-poster beds and hand-painted wall coverings and chesterfield sofas upholstered in British-dyed leather.

Expect a lot of rattan in the new No 11 too. Lytle bought the last rattan-weaving workshop left in England in 2011 and now sells rattan mirrors, lampshades and tables at prices too high to advertise on the internet.

According to a Tatler profile of Symonds, her goal is to get rid of the “John Lewis furniture nightmare”, which will not go down well with the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands.

Related: Johnson trying to set up charity that could fund No 11 flat revamp

Andy Street was the managing director of John Lewis before he went into politics five years ago.

So which Conservative donors will pay to make this vision a reality?

Last year a Scottish firm called Peak Scientific donated £250,000 to the Tories. It designs and manufactures gas generators for analytical laboratories, so could surely at least sponsor a hob ring or two for the new kitchen.

JCB is another big donor, stumping up more than £2.4m after Johnson became prime minister. If he and Symonds really hate their new home, they can surely rely on a cut-price demolition excavator to do the job.