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Under Pressure

Leaks, refurbs and lockdown outbursts: Why is pressure mounting on Boris Johnson?

Johnson’s refurbishment of his Downing Street flat is to be investigated by the Electoral Commission.

virus-outbreak-britain British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Toby Melville Toby Melville

EARLIER TODAY, BRITISH Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted he has not broken any laws over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat after the Electoral Commission launched a formal investigation.

The watchdog said this morning there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect an offence may have occurred, dramatically deepening the Johnson’s troubles over the renovations. 

Questions have been mounting for Johnson since former aide Dominic Cummings accused him of wanting donors to “secretly pay” for the renovations to his No 11 residence in a “possibly illegal” move.

He is also facing pressure over allegedly saying he would rather see “bodies pile high” than impose a third lockdown.

So, as pressure mounts on Johnson, let’s take a look at the controversies that have been unfolding at Downing Street. 

When did this kick off? 

Last Friday, Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings, who stepped down from the role in December, lashed out at the Prime Minister and accused him of being responsible for a series of false allegations about him in the media. 

In a lengthy blog posting, he claimed Johnson had tried to stop an inquiry into the leak last year of plans for a second lockdown because it implicated a friend of his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.

He also denied he was responsible for the leak of private texts in which the Prime Minister promised to “fix” a tax issue for the entrepreneur James Dyson. 

He said that he had also warned Johnson against plans to have donors secretly pay for refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, saying they were “unethical, foolish (and) possibly illegal”.

Cummings said:

“It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.”

Cummings’ attack followed briefings to a number of newspapers, which said Johnson believed he was the source of the leaks about the lockdown and his texts to James Dyson as well as stories about the flat refurbishment.

Cummings accused the new No 10 director of communications Jack Doyle of making false accusations about him “at the PM’s request”.

He said that while Johnson had forwarded him some of his WhatsApp exchanges with Dyson, they did not include those featured in the leak to the BBC.

He said that he was happy to meet Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to discuss what had happened and for his phone to be searched.

dominic-cummings-resigns Dominic Cummings outside his north London home after he resigned from his role as Prime Minister Boris Johnson's top aide PA PA

Cummings also denied that he was the so-called “chatty rat” responsible for the leak last October which was seen to have “bounced” the UK government into announcing a second lockdown.

He said Case had told both him and Johnson that “all the evidence” pointed to Henry Newman, a special adviser and a close friend of Symonds, and “others in that office”.

Cummings said that he had told him that was “mad” and “totally unethical” and that he could not cancel an inquiry into a leak which had affected millions of people “just because it might implicate his girlfriend’s friends”.

He said that there now needed to be an urgent parliamentary inquiry into the government’s conduct over the Covid crisis, with the key players required to give evidence on oath.

So what is the refurbishment row all about?

The Conservative Party leader has faced a flurry of questions regarding how the revamp was paid for following the fallout with Cummings.

Prime Ministers get a budget of up to £30,000 per year to renovate their Downing Street residency, but newspaper reports in recent days have suggested Johnson has spent up to £200,000.

Johnson reportedly told aides he could not afford the revamp of his flat as the costs started to spiral.

Scrutiny of the Prime Minister over the refurbishment of his No 11 flat has refused to abate despite Downing Street’s efforts to draw a line under the issue.

A No 10 spokeswoman said renovation costs of Johnson’s living quarters, beyond those provided for by the £30,000 annual allowance, had been “met by the Prime Minister personally”, adding: “Conservative Party funds are not being used for this.”

But with Labour calling for answers on how the work was funded, the Daily Mail alleged Johnson told colleagues the bill was escalating out of control, while his chief of staff Dan Rosenfield felt the refurbishment was a “crazy arrangement” and a “mess”.

The newspaper said when aides asked the Prime Minister how much the upgrades were costing, Johnson replied: “Tens and tens of thousands – I can’t afford it.”

When pressed by reporters yesterday, No 10 declined to deny suggestions that the Prime Minister received a loan from the Conservative Party to cover the initial costs, before repaying the party.

britain-politics Flags fly from the roof of number 10 Downing street, right, and number 11, left, where Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson's flat thought to be located in London, Frank Augstein Frank Augstein

What’s this about an Electoral Commission investigation?

It was confirmed this morning that Johnson’s refurbishment of his Downing Street flat will be investigated by the Electoral Commission.

The watchdog said it is satisfied there are “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “We have been in contact with the Conservative Party since late March and have conducted an assessment of the information they have provided to us.

“We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred. We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case.

“The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the Commission and whether such funding was reported as required.

“We will provide an update once the investigation is complete. We will not be commenting further until that point.”

The Conservative Party said it would “continue to work constructively” with the commission.

“We believe all reportable donations have been transparently and correctly declared and published by the Electoral Commission,” a spokesman said.

The commission can issue fines of up to £20,000, with most offences under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 resulting in a civil sanction.

But it can also refer investigations to the police or prosecutors.

Investigators can demand documents, information and explanations, and could potentially seek a statutory interview with the Prime Minister as part of the process.

What does Johnson have to say about it? 

This afternoon, Johnson told Prime Minister’s Question he “personally” paid for the renovations, but refused to answer whether he received an initial loan from the Tory party. 

Johnson told MPs that “any further declaration that I have to make, if any” will be advised by his newly appointed independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Christopher Geidt.

Labour leader Keir Starmer pressed the Prime Minister on whether he believes any “rules or laws have been broken” over the refurbishment of the flat.

“No, I don’t,” Johnson replied, adding that he has “met the requirements that I have been obliged to meet in full”.

What about the coronavirus allegations?

Johnson has also been accused of telling aides he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than impose a second lockdown.

He was reported on Monday night to have argued during a government debate in September that lockdowns were “mad” as he raised concerns about the economic harm they cause.

Downing Street described the claims in the Times as “gross distortions” of Johnson’s position.

The allegation surfaced after a growing number of sources were reported to have told how Johnson said he was prepared to let “bodies pile high” rather than order a third shutdown.

The Prime Minister said earlier this week that allegation was “total rubbish”.

This afternoon, during the angry exchange in the House of Commons between Johnson and Starmer, the Prime Minister denied having said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than impose a third coronavirus lockdown.

And what were the Dyson texts about?

As noted above, Cummings released his onslaught on Friday after he was accused by No 10 of a series of damaging leaks including text message exchanges between Johnson and the entrepreneur James Dyson.

In the leaked messages, Johnson promised Dyson he would “fix” a tax issue for Dyson staff working to develop ventilators.

The exchanges, carried by the BBC, took place last March at the start of the pandemic when the UK government was appealing to firms to supply ventilators amid fears the NHS could run out.

Dyson wrote to the Treasury requesting that overseas staff would not have to pay additional tax if they came to the UK to work on the ventilator project.

But when he failed to receive a reply, Dyson reportedly took up the matter directly with the Prime Minister.

He said in a text that the firm was ready but that “sadly” it seemed no-one wanted them to proceed, to which Johnson replied: “I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic.”

The Prime Minister then texted him again saying: “(Chancellor) Rishi (Sunak) says it is fixed!! We need you here.”

Dyson has since said suggestions he was attempted to “extract favours” from Johnson are “completely untrue”. 

james-dyson British entrepreneur and inventor James Dyson in 2013 DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Dyson said: “(The) characterisation of me as a prominent Conservative donor, or supporter, leveraging a position of power to extract favours from the Prime Minister, is completely untrue.

“I would change nothing about how Dyson reacted to this country’s Covid crisis. And you need only look at the UK’s vaccine programme to understand the value of independent action which can be swift, decisive and transcend global boundaries.

“Thousands of companies and millions of individuals have gone above and beyond in responding to this crisis. This should not be diminished by politically motivated mud-slinging after the event.”

What now?

As noted above, Boris Johnson has appointed a new independent advisor on ministers’ affairs, Christopher Geidt. 

Geidt has been tasked with “ascertaining the facts” surrounding the flat renovations and advising Johnson “on any further registration that may be needed”. 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “one of the first” tasks for the new adviser is to look at publishing the long-delayed list of ministers’ interests, which has not been updated since July and could contain details of any donations to fund the Downing Street flat.

The post had been vacant since Alex Allan resigned in November in response to Johnson standing by Priti Patel, despite an investigation finding the Home Secretary’s conduct “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”.

No 10 changed the role to allow the adviser to raise with the Prime Minister potential breaches of the ministerial code suitable for investigations.

But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Johnson has concerns that an adviser with powers to independently launch probes could be drawn into an investigation with “trivial or vexatious complaints”.

Asked if that means he could reject any findings on himself, the spokesman said: “The Prime Minister will remain the ultimate arbiter of this, yep.”

Geidt’s work will be separate to a review into the matter by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, which brings the number of investigations along with the Electoral Commission’s to three.

Includes reporting by Press Association

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