Boris the builder

He can bodge it

Thérèse Coffey defends Downing Street’s home furnishing revamp

“I don’t know the details of exactly what has been spent on what.” Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, was on LBC. She was officially there to talk about work, or possibly pensions. Or maybe both. The Sketch isn’t entirely clear, because we all knew that wasn’t really why she was there.

Coffey was the morning’s Boris Proxy. The prime minister doesn’t seem to like broadcast interviews. His preference is for what’s called a “clip”, where a couple of questions are asked, and he can answer however he wants without fear of the interviewer coming back at him. However hard or well the ball is thrown, it is ultimately underarm bowling. The daily press conferences used to have this quality, and now that they’re less likely to, he’s doing fewer of them.

But someone has to go out and face the fast bowlers of the morning broadcast shows, and so we see Cabinet ministers trotted out to dip their hands in the blood instead. They’re generally not told whose blood it is, or why it’s there. The crucial thing is that they show their loyalty to the prime minister by denying he’s done whatever it is that he’s probably done now.

On Tuesday morning, it was soft furnishings. The government line is that the decoration of the prime minister’s flat is a trivial matter which it’s really beneath journalists to discuss when people are dying in hospitals. This is in no way undermined by the Cabinet Secretary’s revelation that a team of civil servants has been working for a year on finding a way for the prime minister to get out of paying the bills.

So there was Coffey, who didn’t know the details. Fortunately, the show’s host, Nick Ferrari, is a details man, and he did. “It’s wallpaper at £840 a roll,” he said, and Coffey visibly flinched – although LBC is a radio show, they helpfully run a video feed that guests often forget is there. The Sketch doesn’t know much about wallpaper, having gone for Dulux instead, but £840 a roll sounds like a lot. Can you do an entire flat with one roll? From Coffey’s reaction, we’re guessing not.

She recovered herself. The prime minister had just had a baby, she explained. It wasn’t unusual for couples to redecorate in these circumstances. Indeed. One imagines that the birth of recent Johnson babies was generally accompanied by objects being thrown against walls in the Johnson household.

Ferrari, though, wasn’t letting go. “Would you spend £5,900 on an armchair?” Coffey’s eyebrow twitched. “The point,” she began, possibly trying to imagine what an armchair would have to be stuffed with to make this a reasonable price, “is that the prime minister has paid for those.”

Onwards and upwards. She moved onto Radio 4. They didn’t even pretend to be interested in pensions. Or work. They just wanted to know when the funding for all this was going to be declared. “I can only tell you what I’ve been informed,” Coffey said, sounding frankly desperate. “I only have the information that I have.”

Would you spend £5,900 on an armchair?” Coffey’s eyebrow twitched

None of this was out of the ordinary, she explained, and anyway, the government was focused on other things. Except for the bit of the government that has been focused on this thing, of course. And the prime minister, who has been phoning newspaper editors trying to persuade them to write nasty things about Dominic Cummings.

“All sorts of allegations are made,” Coffey said wearily, although, some people do seem to attract more allegations than others, don’t they?

Did she believe Dominic Cummings’s account of his dealings with the prime minister? “People will have come into contact with Dominic Cummings for the first time last year when he did a press conference,” she said. “They I’m sure will have made their own judgement about that.”

Readers whose memories stretch back to that happy afternoon eleven months ago when Cummings introduced us to the concept of the Barnard Castle Eye Test will struggle to recall any members of the Cabinet commenting afterwards that the prime minister’s chief of staff was an obvious charlatan who was clearly implausible. Perhaps they said it under their breath.

What of the prime minister himself, and his denial that he had wanted to see the dead piled in the street rather than lock the country down again? Did Coffey trust him? “Absolutely,” she replied. “I take him at his word.”

Nobody’s that daft, of course, but what can they do? They’re stuck with him, and they have to go out there and repeat whatever he’s told them that day, knowing full well that it may be contradicted by teatime. That’s what a Boris Proxy does.

One could feel sorry for Coffey, but she backed Johnson to be prime minister. She knew what she was getting.

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