John Lewis wallpaper snob Boris Johnson faces trouble ahead over his attitude to this venerable British institution – Aidan Smith

With just 48 hours to go, it’s the final push and there can be no room for error.

Could this be the moment when Carrie Symonds told Boris Johnson how much the new Downing Street wallpaper was going to cost? (Picture: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
Could this be the moment when Carrie Symonds told Boris Johnson how much the new Downing Street wallpaper was going to cost? (Picture: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Almost more important than the contents of the message they’ll deliver on the virtual doorsteps, candidates in Thursday’s various elections up and down the land will be issued with stern reminders of what not to say. Uppermost will be: no dissing of venerable British institutions.

In Hartlepool, scene of a by-election, Parliamentary contenders will be specifically instructed not to confuse mushy peas with guacamole. Peter – now Lord – Mandelson is supposed to have once done this in a local chip shop and was immediately deemed to be one of the metropolitan elite, out of touch with traditional Labour values. Apocryphal or not, the tale continues to serve as a warning.

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For Holyrood hopefuls, too, there will be tailor-made advice – to be followed or else – and it affects those fighting seats in Edinburgh. It runs something like this: “The John Lewis branch in Scotland’s capital city now has to trade underneath the ‘golden turd’. It does not deserve Bojo dumping on it as well. On no account sneer at the soft furnishings.”

A famous Monty Python sketch features the typically surreal punchline: “Nobody expects… the comfy chair!” In Westminster, in the midst of a global pandemic, few would have anticipated comfy chairs – because those in John Lewis most assuredly are – becoming the subject of fevered debate but then British politics, especially with Boris Johnson around, is its own kind of comedy.

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Comfy, but not quite what the First Fiancee wants. Actually some distance from Carrie Symonds’ preferences. If you were to peer through a John Lewis vintage replica wooden nautical telescope with brass fittings – because the department store chain sells these – then you would appreciate the extent of that distance. And you might just about be able to make out a wicker sex swing.

A what? Actually no one knows if Symonds has purchased such an item for Downing Street, or even if her favourite interior designer Lulu Lytle makes them. It has been speculated upon, possibly mischievously, but then this is a deliciously irresistible saga of snobbery, days of Empire, the distinct possibility that the most powerful man in the country is under the thumb – and wallpaper at £840 a roll.

Symonds was keen to refurb the Prime Ministerial residence. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there was plenty that was off-colour about this: “the John Lewis nightmare”. The damning description of what the current incumbents of No 10 inherited from previous occupant Theresa May is the nub of this.

Not whether the PM has broken any rules in asking Conservative Party donors if they have any spare change down the back of their sofas to help with the renovations. Not that while there’s an annual allowance of £30,000 for such work, the bill for Symonds’ fussy fabric fetish could top £200,000. Nor that there are now stories being headlined: “Can Boris Johnson afford to be Prime Minister?”

No, even though it’s been rumoured the bill for the No 10 nanny has been passed round Tory backers, with one alleged to have grumbled, “I don’t mind being asked to pay for leaflets but not for literally wiping the PM’s baby’s bottom”, it’s the slur on John Lewis we should be most concerned about.

The inference in the remark is that the home furnishings, besides being too Theresa May and too beige, are too common. But many loyal Tory voters will be John Lewis fans and here they may be dismayed at their leader.

Does he think his taste is superior to ours? Or is it, as she’s been dubbed, “Carrie Antoinette” who thinks this? If so, why is she wearing the trousers in this relationship? He should tear off that pinny with its silly paisley-pattern parrot design – Lytle’s “boho chic”, apparently – and grab them right back.

John Lewis stores have haberdashery departments, for goodness’ sake, and aren’t they what won us wars? Lytle likes to hark back to olden times with colonial imagery on her fabrics and the style has been termed, by those who know, “nabob maximalism”.

But to my untutored eyes, the hectic nature of so many clashing colours can cause rooms to resemble secret stashes of curios Britain “acquired” on travels when it was civilising the Old World.

Who, though, would pay 840 quid for wallpaper? I can’t help thinking of the Harry Enfield sketch set in the Notting Hill knick-knack shop I Saw You Coming… where the comedian would effortlessly dupe posh thickos into buying his junk. But let’s not hurl insults around.

Johnson has rushed out a statement declaring “I love John Lewis” though unfortunately mud can stick from wherever it was flung and no matter that the furniture might be wipe-clean.

John Lewis is an aspirational place. Working hard, saving up, choosing a sofa built to last rather than to impress friends is a dream for many, not a nightmare. Though the Edinburgh branch wasn’t the definitive department store of my boyhood – that would be Goldberg’s, offering a first, thrilling space-age ride on an escalator – it is where my wife and I set up our wedding list. After 15 years, there’s been the odd bash but I’m still with the same woman and the crockery’s still in use too.

What’s telling about “Wallpapergate”, amid all the fuss and bother, is how the company has responded to the No 10 jibe. One tweet read: “We pride our Home Design Service on having something for almost everyone.” Another, showing one of the famous green vans in Whitehall, was tagged: “Good thing we have a recycling service for old preloved furniture.”

Never knowingly undersold, always knowingly understated – that’s John Lewis.

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