Boris Johnson may end up paying price for flat refurbishment
London Letter: Renovation controversy re-enforces questions about the PM’s judgment
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: “I don’t think there’s anything to see here or to worry about,” he told reporters on Thursday. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP via Getty Images
Along the Pimlico Road between the Royal Hospital Chelsea and Victoria Station runs a string of shops selling home furnishings and decorative objects to the well-heeled. Nothing in the windows carries a price tag, everything costs at least 10 times more than it looks and most of us play our part in maintaining the shops’ exclusivity by never going inside.
Among them is Soane Britain, a double-fronted store selling rattan furniture, fussy fabrics and handmade wallpaper which was until recently known only to the very rich and their style counsellors. But the shop’s co-founder Lulu Lyttle and her designs were pictured in every British newspaper this week as the row over Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat escalated.
Tatler reported last year that Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds had refurbished the flat in a style inspired by Lyttle, replacing the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” of the Theresa May years. Some of Lyttle’s wallpaper costs more than £800 a roll and the renovation bill climbed close to £90,000, three times more than the allowance the prime minister receives for such work.
“I don’t think there’s anything to see here or to worry about,” Johnson told reporters on Thursday.
Three investigations launched this week into how the renovation was funded suggest otherwise, as does the prime minister’s refusal to say if the Conservative party or its donors were involved. He told the House of Commons that he has now paid the excess cost of the refurbishment, believed to be £58,000 but not who paid it initially.
The charge against him is that the Conservatives initially picked up the bill, for which they were reimbursed by a donor and that it was only after the story of that funding was reported that Johnson tried to clean it up by paying the money himself.
PM as arbiter
The prime minister may have little to fear from two of the investigations, one by cabinet secretary Simon Case and the other by Downing Street’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Christopher Geidt. Johnson, who would not commit on Thursday to publish Geidt’s full findings, will himself be the arbiter of whether any action should be taken as a result of those inquiries.
“This is exactly why the independent adviser for ministers’ interests needs to have the power to trigger and publish investigations into breaches of the ministerial code,” Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves said on Thursday.
“The prime minister must publish the Geidt report into the Downing Street refurbishment in full, otherwise he is once again marking his own homework, and seriously driving down standards and accountability. The Tories are playing a dangerous game by not halting the sleaze engulfing their government, and distracting from important issues like clearing the backlog of operations facing our NHS and reducing crime.”
More dangerous is than the Geidt report is the formal investigation announced on Wednesday by the Electoral Commission, which regulates the financial activities of politicians and political parties and ensures that donations are reported. Donations do not have to involve a direct transfer of money but can include loans or the paying of a bill a politician owes to a third party. The commission has robust investigative powers and could examine emails and text messages to and from Johnson, Symonds, Conservative party officials and party donors.
Bodies pile up
The furore over the flat is one of a number of headaches facing Johnson, who is also accused of saying he would rather see bodies pile up in their thousands rather than impose a third lockdown. At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer asked Johnson if he had made those remarks “or remarks to that effect”. When Johnson denied it, Starmer reminded him that the ministerial code says that a minister who knowingly misleads the House is expected to resign.
“I will leave it there for now,” he added rather chillingly.
Conservative MPs, who chose Johnson as their leader in 2019 knowing well the nature of his relationship with the truth, report that the drama surrounding the prime minister is not exercising their constituents. If the Conservatives do well in next week’s local elections in England, holding their mayoralties of the West Midlands and the Tees Valley and perhaps capturing Hartlepool’s Westminster seat from Labour, the parliamentary party will conclude that Johnson remains an electoral asset.
But if the chaos within Downing Street persists and the prime minister’s judgment remains so erratic, the government’s functioning will suffer and that will ultimately exact a political price.