Some unwelcome publicity this week for Rupert Soames, Churchill’s grandson and brother of the former Conservative MP Nicholas – once known as ‘Fatty’ – Soames. Rupert posted a curious tweet on Tuesday extolling the virtues of the Caledonian Sleeper train, run by the company he heads, Serco. The sleeper service from London to Scotland has had what Soames himself admits is a ‘blizzard of bad publicity’ over delays, faults and dirty cabins recently. But this particular tweet was because Soames was about to be outed for breaking the coronavirus lockdown, travelling from London to Inverness on the sleeper.
His staff are members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), which has long borne a grudge against the Soames family. Nicholas Soames used to wittily heckle Labour’s deputy leader at the time, John Prescott – a union member since his days as a steward and waiter for Cunard – with cries of: ‘Mine's a gin and tonic, Giovanni.’ The RMT called Rupert’s trip to Inverness ‘absolutely outrageous’; Nicola Sturgeon twisted the knife by wondering if he might have broken the law. Serco issued a statement – a classic of corporate PR – saying that Soames was making an essential trip to see the company’s key workers. ‘He fiercely defends his decision to show solidarity with front-line workers and believes that hiding at home… is not an appropriate style of leadership.’
This sanctimonious guff might have done the trick had not people started to wonder what key workers Serco actually had in Inverness. Ah, the company said, he was meeting the Caledonian crew and ‘guest services team’. There things might have rested had not some cantankerous Scot tweeted a picture of Soames apparently in a boat near the mouth of Loch Nevis – almost three hours’ drive from Inverness. What could he have been doing there? Soames, it emerged, has a large country estate at the other end of Scotland from Inverness, Camusrory, which can be reached only by boat.
— John Mac (@JohnMac26942076) May 13, 2020
Alibi blown, the following day Soames told The Scotsman, Yes, he had been visiting his Scottish holiday home but: ‘I believe the visit was essential for this small and remote community.’
There is a ‘small and remote community’ at Camusrory because Soames employs three people to look after his estate. He told The Scotsman: ‘The purpose of the visit, which was in my private time, was to conduct essential job interviews.’ Mr S wonders if Soames’s trip is in any way connected to an advertisement for a new gamekeeper and stalker at Camusrory. ‘Personal attributes required: reliable, resilient… happy in remote areas, sense of humour’. Soames takes his shooting seriously and would not like to fill such an important position using Zoom.
But traversing the whole United Kingdom to break lockdown looks bad when it's to visit your second home and interview a new gamekeeper, not visit key workers. It looks bad, too, when this turns out to be a family outing. Mr Steerpike’s man on the Caledonian sleeper says Soames went to Scotland with his son Jack.
Soames is not strictly speaking a public figure but there is a public interest in this story. His company has a number of big coronavirus contracts. The latest will see Serco call centre staff help to 'track and trace' people infected with the virus. Soames is handsomely rewarded for this – his annual pay package is £4.5m. But his company is being paid to give out government advice Soames thinks himself above. In 1940, Churchill called on every Briton to 'do their duty'. Two generations on, this has become: 'Look after number one.’