Exit through the (Downing Street) gift shop

Image of Robert Shrimsley

You know that old saying: you should never look a gift shop in the mouth.

Well, David Cameron apparently isn’t. The prime minister is looking at plans to extend the current staff-only gift shop at Number 10 into a full business proposition. You can’t blame him; in these straitened times he needs to sweat every asset. It may be chump change in the scheme of things but, hey, every little helps.

These days there’s no escaping the gift shop experience. At Disney World the geography of the rides has been arranged so that one has to exit through the gift shop – which obviously adds enormously to the pleasure for parents. I doubt children even realise that the shop isn’t part of the ride. You sit in some boat-shaped vehicle, soar over London with Peter Pan, defeat Captain Hook and then fly into the shop where daddy shells out for a cuddly crocodile. On the other hand, if you don’t mind skipping the ride, the queues for the gift shop are perfectly manageable.

The National Trust has also mastered the art. No country house visit is complete for my family without a plate of overpriced scones and a quick shufty around the floral pottery on sale. Twenty minutes in a Trust gift shop and you too can convert your home into Downton Abbey. You may not have a butler scowling in the drawing room but for just £25 a pop you can have an Acanthus cup and saucer (all part of the exquisite William Morris range). And what better to offset its delicate beauty than a matching trinket box (£13) or thimble (£5). Everything you need to sit in your front room embroidering in a rocking chair while you await a call from Lady Catherine de Burgh is there for you in a National Trust shop.

What one can say for the Trust, however, is that it has understood the importance of staying true to the character of the institution. Everything on sale speaks to those who pine for a bygone era; boiled sweets, bone china and Beatrix Potter. It even sells those annoying hardback books which play to nostalgia for our rote-learning school days. You know the ones; books with titles like I used to know that; Thirty Days has September; I before E and Thrash me soundly gentle master.

Buckingham Palace has also managed to stick to the theme, with its fine collection of royal china, lifeguard bears and grenadier rubber ducks. It even has an intriguing collection of gifts under the general heading, Buckingham Palace fragrance. This includes Queen Victoria Lavender and Buckingham Palace aftershave, “a fresh fragrance combining bergamot, lime and green aspects with augmented notes of lemon and neroli on a heart of orange flower and cinnamon”. It may not be a Lynx Bullet but I hear it drives the corgis wild. A few splashes of this and no leg will go unmolested in the salons of Sandringham.

So the pressure will be on Mr Cameron’s gift shop to capture the essence of the Downing Street operation. At first it is all going to be jolly respectable: some crested crockery, labelled spirits and paperweights (incidentally does anyone actually put paper under their paperweights any more?). But inevitably there will be pressure to upsell. “I’m a mug to be in Downing Street” cups, the cabinet collection of departmental teddy bears and press office spinning tops can’t be far off.

And who would not want something from the Spending Review collection? Airfix models of aircraft carriers (planes not included); Hard Times model village (list price gets you only 70 per cent of a social housing unit); Big Society humbugs. Perhaps it could be a vehicle for public sector sell-offs. “Guaranteed piece of the dismantled apparatus of the state” comes with certificate of authenticity signed by Vince Cable.

Then, of course, Downing Street fragrance: “a fresh new scent combining Fox, May and Pickles and an intriguing combination of wild Clegg and aspects of summer Osborne, with augmented notes of liberal democracy on a heart of bankruptcy with just a hint of desperation”. Coalition cologne: the perfect Christmas gift for any partner.


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