‘Nothing to see here’: Embattled Boris Johnson tries to switch focus from Downing Street flat row

·7-min read
<p>A tired-looking Boris Johnson speaks with pupils after taking part in a science lesson at King Solomon Academy in Marylebone</p> (Getty Images)

A tired-looking Boris Johnson speaks with pupils after taking part in a science lesson at King Solomon Academy in Marylebone

(Getty Images)

Under-fire Boris Johnson tried to shift the political spotlight away from sleaze today with just one week to go until critical elections.

The Prime Minister issued a home video promising more police, before visiting a school in west London alongside Rishi Sunak.

During the trip, the Prime Minister said he would comply with the demands of an Electoral Commission investigation into the funding of the refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment.

"I don't think there's anything to see here or to worry about," he told broadcasters.

But Labour kept up the pressure over allegations of impropriety by accusing him of trying to act as “judge and jury” when ministers are accused of wrongdoing.

Mr Johnson was buoyed by two polls putting the Conservatives ahead of Labour.

BMG Research found that when asked to choose between Mr Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer as Prime Minister, the proportion picking the Tory leader had gone up five points to 40 per cent, while the share choosing the Labour leader went down four points to 24.

Senior Conservatives claimed the sleaze allegations that have dogged the Government were not cutting through to voters. One said: “I’ve had just one angry email since Dominic Cummings went on the attack against the PM — but I had more than a thousand when Cummings went to Barnard Castle.”

The first big test will come on May 6 when voters go to the polls in Scotland and London and to elect local councils. Tories are braced for losses in most areas but are hopeful of winning a by-election in Hartlepool, previously a safe Labour seat.

POOL/AFP via Getty Images
POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A tired-looking Mr Johnson recorded his video in No 10 using a selfie stick.

“Hi folks, this is a government that believes in delivering on the people’s priorities,” he began. “Above all making our streets safe by recruiting many thousands more police officers.”

The question at Westminster was whether those police officers would be interviewing senior Conservatives following the announcement by the Electoral Commission that it had found “reasonable grounds” to suspect that party donations laws had been broken in regard to a potential payment towards the PM’s flat.

A senior minister suggested Mr Johnson is ready to make further public declarations about the funding of a lavish refurbishment if advised to do so by his new adviser on ministerial conduct, Lord Geidt.

Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News: “If Lord Geidt, in his investigation, requires the Prime Minister to make any other declarations, then he will also do that.”

Mr Zahawi said the main question bothering taxpayers was whether any costs fell onto the public purse, adding: “He paid for the refurbishment, unlike previous prime ministers — Tony Blair, I think, spent something like £300,000 on refurbishing the flat in No 10 over time.”

Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said Lord Geidt’s role was too weak because he could not investigate allegations of wrongdoing without the PM’s approval. “The Prime Minister can’t be judge and jury on his ministers’ — or indeed his own — behaviour,” she said.

AP
AP

“The Prime Minister shouldn’t be able to block investigations into his ministers or himself when breaking the ministerial code.”

Mr Zahawi responded: “The Prime Minister will absolutely make sure that he delivers everything that Lord Geidt asks for to be able to conduct that investigation.”

Asked why John Lewis furnishings were “not good enough” for Mr Johnson, Mr Zahawi said the company or person behind the renovations does not matter, but who paid for the revamp.

According to Tatler magazine, the Prime Minister’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, felt that Theresa May had left a “John Lewis nightmare” at the flat.

Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds are at the heart of the crisisES Composite
Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds are at the heart of the crisisES Composite

“Whether it is John Lewis or Lulu Lytle, the important thing for your listeners is that the Prime Minister paid for this, not the taxpayer,” said Mr Zahawi.

Senior Tory MP Simon Hoare tweeted that his own house was full of John Lewis furnishings. “JL curtains, bed, bedding, bedside lamps for Mrs H and me. Breakfast in JL china on a JL tray. We adore JL (as is probably clear by now).”

Sir Keir Starmer, on an election campaign visit in Manchester, said: “I think this is getting a bit farcical. I think the Prime Minister could actually deal with this very, very quickly. All he’s got to do is answer a very simple question; which is who paid, initially, for the redecoration of your flat?”

He added: “If there’s an innocent explanation, the easiest thing is to set up a camera pool and take the question and answer it.” He said Mr Johnson “should do that this morning, then we can move on”.

WHO’S WHO IN DOWNING STREET WALLPAPERGATE PAPER CHASE

Boris and Carrie

The Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds are at the heart of this crisis. Prime ministers get an annual budget of up to £30,000 for renovations, but reports suggest they spent up to £200,000 on the makeover. The PM is believed to have sought help from Tory donors and now faces serious questions over whether funds were used and properly declared. Boris Johnson, his ministers and spokesmen have repeatedly insisted he paid for it himself. However, the major question remains unanswered. Who originally paid for the makeover?

Dominic CummingsREUTERS
Dominic CummingsREUTERS

Dominic Cummings

Boris Johnson’s former top adviser poured fuel on the fire when he dropped an explosive blog in response to Downing Street’s accusations that he had been leaking to the press. Cummings retaliated by accusing his former boss of “possibly illegal” behaviour by “secretly” using Tory donors to pay for renovations. Downing Street is worried about any further ammunition the Vote Leave mastermind might unleash.

Lord Brownlow

Emails obtained by the Daily Mail revealed a plan for Tory peer Lord Brownlow to chair a trust that would fund the Downing Street building’s upkeep. Lord Brownlow told Conservative party chiefs in October that he had given them £58,000 to cover payments already made by the party on behalf of the trust and a separate £15,000 donation. However, only the £15,000 was declared in Electoral Commission records.

Ben Elliot

Tory party co-chairman and nephew of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. He was copied in to the leaked email about Lord Brownlow’s donations. He is likely to face questions over whether funds were properly declared. It was claimed Mr Elliot warned the PM in February last year that the alleged plans were “madness”, according to The Times.

Mike Chattey

The email from Lord Brownlow, dated October 14, 2020, was reportedly sent to the Tories’ head of fundraising.

Amanda Milling

Minister and the Tory party’s co-chairwoman Amanda Milling could also be called for questioning. The issue centres on whether the Tory party funds were used to pay for the flat at any point. If it transpires the Tories solicited a donation but planned to record it with the Electoral Commission as a political donation, it could have legal ramifications. Last month, Ms Milling told the Telegraph: “Conservative Party funds are not being used to pay for the Downing Street flat.”

PA Wire
PA Wire

Simon Case

The Cabinet Secretary, and Prince William’s former private secretary, was asked to examine plans for the formation of a Downing Street flat trust after they were leaked to the press. He ruled it could be possible to set up a trust in the future but it was not possible for it to pay for work retrospectively.

Lord Geidt

A crossbench peer, who was the Queen’s private secretary for 10 years, he has been named the new “independent adviser” on ministerial standards. He will lead a probe into the funding of the makeover. However, Boris Johnson will have the final say on whether he broke the rules as he remains the “ultimate arbiter” of any investigation on the ministerial code.

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