Sofa? No good: Carrie Symonds vs. John Lewis is a false distraction from things that should really make you angry...

... but why fact check a quote when it's too good to be true?

Carrie Symonds hates John Lewis, right? She stalks around the flat above Number 11, Downing Street, dressed as Marie Antoinette screaming, “Let them buy scatter cushions!” and watches the retailer’s Christmas adverts on loop while laughing derisorily. It’s a fact. Everyone knows it. She said that thing, one time. You know, the quote everyone is tweeting about…

Only she didn’t. The line “John Lewis furniture nightmare” comes from Anne McElvoy’s cover feature in the April edition of Tatler and has taken on a life of its own since it appeared. Almost everyone repeating it as evidence of Symonds’ distaste for the shop-shaped totem of middle-class success hasn’t read the Tatler article or even seen the quote in the context. I’ve sprinkled a few tweets that illustrate that throughout this newsletter.

The relevant section of McElvoy’s long profile of Symonds reads:

In the autumn, matters improved as Johnson’s health recovered and Symonds turned to the task of putting the couple’s stamp on their new home. It is, by all accounts, much improved from what one visitor calls the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ of the May years.

These days, according to people I speak to who have visited the flat, Wilfred’s nursery has vintage furniture, hand-restored by Symonds, who also had the hall floors stripped and the floorboards burnished. The main room is now deep green and often candlelit. There are paintings by John Nash, by Boris’s artist mother, Charlotte, and by Boris himself, plus handprints by Wilfred…

The copy has an oleaginous quality that makes you want to wash your hands after reading it but this is Tatler we’re looking at — the world’s foremost fanzine about chinless wonders and aristocratic non-entities. But look at who the ‘slur’ on John Lewis attributed to; it’s not Boris Johnson or Carrie Symonds, but an unnamed visitor to the flat. As a statement, it tells us nothing about the pair’s penchant or otherwise for John Lewis products.

But flatgate or wallpapergate or expensive-baby-gate-gate (pick the one that appeals most) is ongoing. Adding disdain for John Lewis, a shop considered quite posh by most people, to claims that the Prime Minister tried to get the Conservative Party to pay for the excess costs, then was going to take a donor’s cash to solve the problem, before finally accepting an ‘odd’ and as-yet undeclared loan, makes the story ‘relatable’.

The implication that Johnson and Symonds — which already sounds like an expensive wallpaper shop — think themselves better than John Lewis, which through the emotional manipulation of its Christmas ads has managed to buy itself a kind of national treasure status, makes the story pop. It’s not true but it feels true and that’s often enough for ideas to lodge themselves in the public consciousness, especially if media outlets repeat them unthinkingly.

Writing aggrieved comment pieces about how ‘we’ love John Lewis while Carrie Symonds thinks that we’re tasteless greasy-fingered oiks is easy. I could write a convincing pitch right now if I hadn’t have bothered to scurry back to McElvoy’s original piece. And indeed, staffers and freelancers alike have gone wild for this easy but erroneous angle.

Over at The Evening Standard — formerly the domain of job-hoarding former Chancellor and wallpaper firm heir George Osborne — Susannah Butter, senior editor and features writer, offers up a chiding piece under the headline John Lewis nightmare? Why it’s a mistake for Boris Johnson to alienate the department store shoppers.

It opens with a classic of the feature writers arsenal — the Wikipedia-powered historical details lede for context setting…

In 1864, a man called John Lewis opened a draper’s shop on Oxford Street.

In 1905, he bought the department store Peter Jones. Since then, the brand has grown to be shorthand for certain qualities – you may know the slogan “never knowingly undersold”, you might have cried at its Christmas advert, you have probably been there with your parents at some point growing up or have friends who had their wedding lists there.

… before quickly leaping to a combination of false premise and fact around the redecoration scandal:

But for the Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds, John Lewis means something different. They are itching to get rid of the “John Lewis nightmare” that Theresa May left behind in Downing Street (so much so that there are incendiary questions over where the money came from to pay for their renovations).

That paragraph sums up the problem with hanging coverage on the ‘nightmare’ quote — it elides something invented (Carrie Symonds’ hatred for John Lewis) with something serious and true (the questions around where the money came from and how the Prime Minister got his hands on it).

Butter needs about 800 words, so she turns the feature into a disquisition on the nature of the British class system…

But Symonds and Johnson’s disdain for Jean Louis, as some middle class people lovingly call it, reveals a very particular quality of the English class system - and one that could prove politically alienating for Johnson.

Not only is there no proof that Symonds treats John Lewis shoppers with the disdain Nancy Mitford had for people who said “toilet” rather than “loo”, but there’s also plenty of evidence that she and the Prime Minister are John Lewis shoppers and that May’s interior decorating tastes weren’t even that influenced by the department store.

On the day Symonds moved into Downing Street in 2019, delivery men were pictured by PA delivering a significant number of boxes from… John Lewis.

And The Daily Mail — which has been the most obsessive chaser of the flatgate story — published a deconstruction of the flat’s front room when it was in the midst of a previous obsession — Theresa May’s expensive leather trousers. The annotated picture (below) shows only one item unequivocably purchased at John Lewis, though obviously, the “John Lewis nightmare” jibe is more a damning of the overall aesthetic than an accounting of where all the furnishing came from.

The Evening Standard is far from alone in getting mileage from the zombie quote. The Daily Telegraph — still usually fantastically loyal to Boris Johnson, its former (and no doubt future) columnist — published a feature headlined Don’t be such a snob, Carrie! John Lewis furniture is far from a 'nightmare', which begins:

Some basic rules for being a modern, British prime minister’s wife/girlfriend/life partner.

  1. Support our NHS workers.

  2. Adore dogs.

  3. Champion the tireless efforts of Marcus Rashford.

  4. Whenever possible, wear Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen or Vivienne Westwood in public.

  5. Declare your undying love for Stormzy.

  6. And this is the important one. Never, ever, EVER slag off the John Lewis home department.

Once again that phantom slagging off allows a writer to dedicate 800+ words to in-depth analysis of something that didn’t happen while real scandals and real corruption swirl like dirt around an expensive bath’s plughole.

The final example of features built on a fantastic misreading of the Tatler quote that I want to look at comes from the regional press. The Birmingham Mail, spying a local angle, offers up Tory Mayor candidate Andy Street is 'Mr John Lewis' - but apparently that's too downmarket for Boris bringing in Street’s former role as Managing Director of John Lewis.

It’s a cheeky effort but it lacks the pizzaz of Patrick Kidd, The Times diary editor, who dragged an old story about Street opening up a John Lewis store especially for Theresa May to ‘bounce test’ the beds:

It might seem trivial to pick the papers and broadcasters up on the way they’ve misinterpreted and misused the Tatler quote but it’s simply an example of how bandwagon chasing and a loose relationship to facts has become endemic in the British media. The questions around the funding of the Number 11 flat renovation matter but they’re mixed up and minimised by the easy (but coinfected) middle-class baiting controversy of “Carrie’s John Lewis allergy”.

An inquiry into the full details of who paid for a £16,000 holiday to Mustique by Johnson and Symonds in December 2019 is still going 16 months after it was started. There are so many questions around the ‘VIP lane’ that led to many companies with no previous experience making PPE but plenty of background in back-scratching, arse-kissing, and donating to the Conservative Party getting a huge amount of public money. And the ongoing clash with Dominic Cummings promises to produce further scandals when he appears before a parliamentary select committee next month.

Mixing all of those serious issues with trivia — and incorrect trivia, no less — like the John Lewis quote is a problem because it distracts and diminishes from them. If the debate is about what John Lewis means as a class signifier, it’s a lot easier for the government and Boris Johnson’s allies to dismiss the row over the renovation as Westminster tittle-tattle. But the question of how the decor was funded is key because it’s another piece in a puzzle which, when you put it together, shows a picture of chumminess, cronyism, and corruption.

Symonds’ wallpaper preferences and the Prime Minister’s choice of how to pay for them wouldn’t matter if he didn’t seem like he’d looked to donors to handle the bill as well as having a long history of being very laissez-faire about where his party’s cash comes from. Don’t forget the Prime Minister’s part-time job being auctioned off as a tennis pro to Russian oligarch’s wives.

The current scandals are getting as much coverage from titles like The Daily Mail because they are unhappy with how the Prime Minister has served them. When he was useful to them — like during the 2019 General Election — they lined up to push him as the “only choice”. Now they’ve got other options in mind, they’ll throw everything at him — the wallpaper, the sofa, the light fittings… in fact, anything up to and including the kitchen sink. Ed Miliband can ring him up from his second kitchen to tell him how that feels…

And don’t expect the Tatler quote to go away either. Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” but 232 years later, most people are convinced she did.