Sofa, so (not very) good

Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters

They got him for tax evasion in the end.

Al Capone, that is. After years of violence, gun-running, whiskey bootlegging and general mafioso-type nastiness, old Scarface, Public Enemy No 1, was undone by his reluctance to pay his way. Or, to put it another way, his arrogance in thinking that the rules only applied to others, not to him.

Sticking to every single rule over the past year and a bit has been hard, most of us have probably bent one or two whether by design or accident, but the conscious decision not to do what everyone else is forced to do because you believe the rules do not apply to you is galling when it is so blatant.

At a conference a few years ago, I sat next to a delegate who worked for a local authority. She looked askance as I hoovered up my share of the branded chocolates and the  corporate table gift. She wasn’t allowed to have any of it, she told me, because, as a public servant, she couldn’t risk it giving the impression she could be influenced by free gifts. All very noble and proper, you might think, but this wasn’t an £88,000 home décor project, it was something innocuous like a bottle opener.

I’m in two minds over ‘sofa-gate’ (hey, Daily Mail, you can have that one for free). One the one hand, in the great scheme of things, how important is it that the Prime Minister may or may not have had a loan/donation/help from Party funds/the public purse to re-decorate his flat? When we are still fighting a global pandemic. Ask anyone in Delhi or Rio de Janeiro how important it is.

On the other hand, we expect or politicians to follow the rules. Even though we know that they, like the rest of us, bend them from time to time. We still expect a certain degree of propriety and standards in our public servants. The most important public servant, really, we should be holding to even higher standards, arguably. The public purse allows for an incoming prime Minister to redecorate their living accommodation in Downing Street of course. It’s their home, after all, for however long they are in office. There is a budget for it, too, and it’s about £30,000. If that isn’t enough then might I gently suggest shopping in a different store? It’s what the rest of us have to do.

It irritates me that, when their neighbour in Downing Street is ploughing billions into trying to keep companies afloat and save jobs, Johnson and Symons have gaily frittered away tens of thousands of pounds on new sofas and matching wallpaper that someone said wouldn’t have looked out of place in an upmarket Bulgarian brothel. It just feels, somehow, inappropriate and, well, grabby. Also, arrogant. How many years does he think they will be living in that place? Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the 20th century’s longest-serving Prime Ministers only managed 11 years and 10 years, respectively.

It would be strangely British if, after all the bluster and bombastic rhetoric about Brexit, the £350m  week for the NHS, the legal/not legal prorogation of parliament, the rushing through of contracts for pals of the Party, the bending of the truth to fit the order of the day and the general floppy-haired, bumbling Borisness of his reign so far, that the Prime Minister could come undone because his fiancée dissed the ‘John Lewis’ décor of his predecessor.

There are a great many people, and by people I also mean voters, for whom John Lewis is an aspirational brand, something to work for, save up for and feel a quiet sense of pride that you have something so nicely British in your living room. As a business, John Lewis may not be what it once was. It may be having some tough times of its own, but there is a deep abiding love for the brand that still beats in the heart of every middle-aged, middle class, middle-England female voter in the land. Prime Minister, you ignore your core demograph at your peril.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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