There was a sustained line of questioning today at the daily No 10 press briefing on a topic that took up around half the allotted time: an excellent story in the Daily Mail this morning about desired renovations to Downing Street’s ministerial living quarters. This story was supplied from we cannot know where, but suspect the source does not wish Ms. Symonds especially well. Nor does the source wish Dilyn the dog well. Though the source seems better disposed to the careers of civil servants than it once did: certainly more so than it claims Carrie Symonds is.
It’s alleged that Boris Johnson – who’s famously allergic to spending his own money and lives in mysterious fear of penury – is secretly trying to set up a Tory donor-funded charity to help pay for the makeover of the flat by his fiancée Carrie Symonds after claiming the cost was “totally out of control”. These, it seems, are aesthetic changes sought by the First Fiancée. As opposed to being refurbishments needed either because Samantha Cameron’s kitchen has fallen apart, or because there are pressing heritage conservation matters to attend to in the state rooms.
The flat above No.11 is larger than the one above No.10 and was the one lived in by Tony Blair, because he had a larger family than Gordon Brown. Since Blair moved in in 1997, all Prime Ministers have since lived in the No.11 flat regardless of family circumstances.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman previously said that there would be no additional cost to the taxpayer when the PM’s fiancée moved into the flat but was curiously silent on the subject today. The Times reports that the Prime Minister first expressed concern last year after being informed by the Cabinet Office that the maximum taxpayer contribution would be about £30,000. A friend of Miss Symonds however hit back at the criticism, telling the Mail: “The makeover is appropriate for a building of such huge importance. Carrie has exquisite taste. It is classic, stunning, stylish and chic. She should be congratulated not criticised.”
It’s worth savouring today’s official speaking so you can get a picture of how forthcoming the PM’s two representatives were about the details. They were given a chance to correct anything from the Mail story, which was interestingly not taken up. And certainly not with anything like the gusto Friends of Carrie brought to the job in their off the record quotes supplied to the papers.
Replies are from the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, but those marked “AS” are from Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary who agrees to speak on the record.
Can you update us at all on the refurbishment of the Downing St. flat?
Matters concerning any work on Downing St. including the residences are covered in the Cabinet Office annual report and accounts, that’s where we set out the details of what’s happened so I’d have to point you towards them.
Does the PM want to set up a charity to take charge of the preservation of Downing St?
I’m not going to get into commenting on speculation around this, as I said matters concerning work on Downing St. are covered in the Cabinet Office annual report. As you know Downing St is a working building as has been the case under successive administrations refurbishments and maintenance are made periodically.
Why is the flat being refurbished at all, it was only done fairly recently?
As I say you know Downing St. is a working building and houses two ministerial residences. As it has been under successive administrations refurbishments are made periodically but again as I say the details of that are set out on the Cabinet Office Annual report.
Is it correct that the refurbishments cost over £100,000 as the PM is reported to have said?
I’m not going to comment on the speculation. All I can do is point you to the Cabinet Office annual report.
Is this information available under FOI laws?
As I say we set it out under the Cabinet Office annual report and accounts, that sets out the amount of money that is being spent on refurbishment and assuring that building works are accounted for.
Have any taxpayer funds been used in refurbishment?
I haven’t got any more for you on this. The details of how much has been spent will be set out in the Cabinet Office annual report, with regard to No.10 in terms of refurbishment and building work.
I think when the PM’s fiancée moved into No.10 the PM’s spokesman said there would not be any additional cost to the taxpayer. Is that still correct?
All I can do is point you towards the Cabinet Office annual report, I’m not going to get into any speculation about this.
When will the annual report be published?
I would need to check with the Cabinet Office but it’s normally done at the end of the financial year but I’ll have to check a specific date.
Will the work be done in a carbon-neutral way?
I’m not going to get into speculation around this, you’ll have to wait for the Cabinet Office annual report.
Allegra, can you tell us anything about the refurbishment?
AS: I don’t have anything to add to what [the PM’s spokesman] has just talked you all through.
Is there anything you want to correct from the Daily Mail story today about it?
AS: We’ve set out that you’re all going to get the information in due course when it comes out in the Cabinet Office annual report, we’ll let you know when that is.
Can you confirm or deny that taxpayer money is being used in refurbishment?
AS: I think everything is being done to make sure the Cabinet Office report, when it comes out, gives you the full picture.
If there is a charity set up, that’s not going to specifically be for the Cabinet Office, that could be separate. Can you give us any guidance about whether that is being looked at as an option?
AS: I am not able to give you any guidance no, we’ve set out for you that when the Cabinet Office report comes out you’ll get it and you’ll be able to pore over the details in the usual way.
What about the idea of having a charity looking after it?
AS: Firstly it is speculation, I can understand why it is interesting but it is speculation. Secondly we’ve just talked you through the quite intricate way in which it’s run at the moment. Downing St. is maintained to appropriate standards, the Grade I and II listed building that it is and the Cabinet Office is in oversight of that so as things stand there’s already a process in place for maintaining it to the right standard.
Is it still the case that Carrie’s moving into No.10 has resulted in no additional costs to the taxpayer?
AS: I’m not going to comment on speculation. I don’t know the answer to that question. We have a working building. It’s maintained, as you would expect, as the home of the PM and indeed Chancellor and with successive administrations, all of you on this call have had these conversations before, there are refurbishments, there are maintenance and it’s done with the oversight of the Cabinet Office and you’ll get that report and will pore over in detail I am sure.
I’m told the Cabinet Office 2019/2020 report didn’t include anything about the decoration costs. Why weren’t they in there?
I would have to check the details for you, as I said any money spent in terms of refurbishment or building works are set out in that annual report, I haven’t got that year in front of me.
Would the PM ever spend £100 per metre of his own money or public money on wallpaper?
AS: I don’t know, it’s genuinely not a conversation I’ve had with him. The last conversation I had with him was about vaccine rollout. I think, in the fullness of time, when the Cabinet Office report is ready for the relevant year you’ll get the detail.
Does this refurbishment mean the PM feels he’ll be around in No.10 for years to come?
You’re aware that he won a General Election and how long it is until the next one.
Clearly Carrie Symonds has great faith both in her being around for a long time and in her own personal taste, setting it up as being a new template for Downing Street’s interiors. Perhaps any new Tory charity established to decorate No 10 will begin to see the benefits of preserving the decorative fashions of even the recent past, which inevitably age so quickly, rather than just changing them for change’s sake? These considerations are highly likely to be in Ms Symonds’ mind, and you can see why her friends would not want her criticised for being preoccupied by them.
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