Why do so many Tory ministers have giant union jacks in their lounge?

Zoe Williams

Keir Starmer may be planning a ‘patriotic’ rebrand for Labour, but I’m more curious about the government’s approach to the flag

Matt Hancock, the health secretary
Pole position ... Matt Hancock, the health secretary. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Pole position ... Matt Hancock, the health secretary. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 16 Feb 2021 06.43 EST

The union jack is always seen as a problem for Labour, isn’t it? Can MPs stand in front of it and look as though they mean it? Fixating on that, we may have missed a tiny detail: that the Conservative party has gone bananas.

No half measures for the Tory bigwigs, no siree: most of them have a full-sized union jack lurking, artfully draped, behind a sofa. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, appeared on ITV’s Peston in an office that housed a giant flag, but was otherwise just a grey box, save for an occasional table bedecked with photos that looked as if they had been cut out of a catalogue. Matt Hancock has his behind the sofa and tilts his head towards it meaningfully as he talks, like a swinger trying to nod towards the pampas grass. Grant Shapps’s looks a bit polyester, but your takeaway should be the size, not the quality. See how big it is? That is how much he means it, whatever “it” is.

They have yet to standardise whether they sit to the left or right of the standard, even though UK flag protocol is quite clear. Well, in fact, flag protocol is not to have a flag in your lounge at all. As the Flag Institute puts it: “If a purely decorative effect is desired [ie you are not honouring the dead, but rather talking about whether or not you have booked a holiday in Cornwall], it is better to confine the display to flags of lesser status: for example, house flags, pennants or coloured bunting.” Serious fans of the flag must be struck dumb with disgust.

Imagine what you would think if you walked into someone’s house and it looked like this. It differs depending on who it is, of course. If it were Shapps, I would think he was trying to get me to join a Ponzi scheme; at Jenrick’s, so eerily wipe-clean, I would think I was about to be kidnapped. What I would not think is: “Yes, this is totally normal. Loads of normal people I’ve met have houses like this.”

It is a peculiar point in the arc of politics: ministers are behaving in an extraordinary way to construct an outlandish notion of what the people want, and coming off quite bonkers in the process, but everyone is being too polite to mention it.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist