The 'Carrie Antoinette' scandal over the Downing St flat could be all in the genes

As the row over Boris Johnson and the decorating of the Downing Street flat dominates the British media, it’s clear that at its core is a familiar charge of who benefits when cash is donated.

The question of who paid for the gold wallpaper and all the other trappings assembled by the Prime Minister’s preferred designer would not be raised at all if the person paying from the outset had been Boris himself.

His claim now is that he covered the cost. But the story has changed and keeps changing. Was it a Tory donor originally? Was it the Conservative Party? Was it a personal loan to Johnson, enabling him to hand over the £58,000 – the amount left over after the £30,000 public allowance is taken off?

Because of the lack of clarity, the Electoral Commission is now probing to see if the rules regarding political donations have been broken and if an offence has been committed.

It’s also managed to go to the heart of British life and become a conversation piece, the fact that Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancee, so took against the existing decor as “too John Lewis”. Ouch.

Up and down the land, thousands of households are left reeling by the put down from Ms Symonds – or should that be Carrie Antoinette – of furniture and fabrics from the highly regarded, popular department store.

Symonds has been silent but I've wondered about her perspective and whether the episode has brought back memories

It is true that Johnson is known to be wayward with money. He took a loan from his former campaign manager in 2019. He is reported to have spent more than £12,000 on luxury hamper deliveries alone in a year. In recent days he has put his Oxfordshire home up for rent.

Ms Symonds has been silent but I've wondered about her perspective and whether the episode has brought back memories. The 33 year old's father Matthew was a co-founder of The Independent, along with Sir Andreas Whittam Smith and Stephen Glover.

I worked at The Independent. Matthew was fiercely bright, but also prone to being abrasive and stern. Of the founders, he was the least clubbable, not as prone to a relaxed, enjoyable chat, not with the underlings anyway.

From the off, the trio, led by Whittam Smith, determined that their newspaper should be different. It had to be apart from the rest – independent in name and in nature.

The Fleet Street tradition of journalists having free rein over their expense claims would not apply. Neither would its staff receive “freebies”, they would not be in someone else’s pocket and risk having their objectivity compromised – the title would pay its own way or not at all.

In 1987, Symonds, who was married with children, had a mistress – it’s a quaint term now, but it was commonly used then and as Glover points out in his book, Paper Dreams, about the early years of The Independent, that is what Symonds himself called her.

Symonds' expenses scandals a family history

A dispute had previously erupted between Whittam Smith and Symonds over the claiming of a double room to cover a party conference. As Glover recounts, it cost an extra £10.

Whittam Smith consulted Glover and said: “There are a lot of things I am prepared to put up with, but the one thing I will not tolerate is fiddling of expenses, defrauding the company.”

Glover said it was wrong, “but it was only ten pounds. He should obviously be asked to pay it back and be read the riot act”. This did not satisfy Whittam Smith. “If Matthew can cheat us out of ten pounds, he can cheat us out of ten thousand pounds! Don’t you agree?”

Whittam Smith wanted to fire him. Glover sprang to Symonds’ defence and pleaded for him to be spared. Eventually, Whittam Smith backed down.

Andreas Whittam Smith was one of 'The Independent's' founding troika alongside Carrie's father, Matthew Symonds, and Stephen Glover. Getty
Andreas Whittam Smith was one of 'The Independent's' founding troika alongside Carrie's father, Matthew Symonds, and Stephen Glover. Getty

There was then another altercation between the two over a trip to a Grand Prix with the sports editor. Symonds, a motoring enthusiast, was going along to help educate his colleague on the intricacies of Formula One.

Whittam Smith complained it would look like a freebie, even though the company was paying, and objected. According to Glover, they almost came to blows, with Whittam Smith instructing: “Matthew, you must learn to do what you are told.”

Then, in July 1987, the scandal magazine Private Eye reported a story which had been doing the rounds in the paper’s offices, that Symonds had taken his mistress to New York and stayed at the ritzy Algonquin hotel.

It was a small room and there was no extra charge to the company, explained Symonds. “It seems not to occur him now or later that he has acted unwisely,” writes Glover. Whatever the facts, it looked bad.

Reading Glover’s account today, the similarities are obvious

Private Eye continued to run stories attacking Symonds. It was clear that someone or some people at the paper were out to harm him. Whittam Smith, Glover and Symonds consulted an external libel lawyer who advised there was little that could be done.

In 1988, Symonds’ mistress, Josephine McAfee, a lawyer at the newspaper, gave birth to Carrie. Symonds remained with the paper until 1994.

Reading Glover’s account today, the similarities are obvious: the relatively trivial nature of the supposed misdemeanour – there must be many world leaders shaking their heads at a premier having to pay to upgrade an apartment over his place of work; the twisting and turning; the presence of too much information (to the delight of Private Eye, they received the leak of a detailed memorandum from Symonds to Whittam Smith); and a lack of perception as to how someone’s actions can be viewed.

When the libel lawyer advised against pursuing Private Eye, Symonds raged: “I just feel so let down, so incredibly let down.” I can imagine Johnson, now engaged to Symonds' daughter, saying exactly the same.

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London

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Updated: May 3, 2021 01:31 PM

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