Boris Johnson today side-stepped questions about the use of donations to fund an expensive refurbishment of his flat in Downing Street – despite warnings from a watchdog that his silence is undermining public trust.
Asked during a campaign visit to Wales he had ever discussed using donors to fund the work, he said: “If there’s anything to be said about that, any declaration to be made, that will, of course, be made in due course.”
His sidestepping of the question about the finances of the flat contrasted with a forthright denial of a lurid allegation that he commented last autumn that he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third Covid lockdown.
Asked if he made the comments attributed to him, Mr Johnson said: “No.” His political friends went further, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace calling the claim published by the Daily Mail “just untrue”, peer [Zac] Goldsmith branding it “an unforgivable lie” and Health Minister Nadine Dorries calling it “an outright lie”.
The swift and clear denial of that allegation made it even stranger that Downing Street was declining to answer key questions about the funding of the flat
Sir Alistair Graham, the former chair of the Committee on Standards on Public Life, urged No 10 to be open about the matter or see “the sleaze tag get stronger and stronger”.
Sir Alistair said Mr Johnson’s refusal to answer questions clearly “raises these issues of trust”.
He told Talk Radio “Can we trust what he says? Is he telling the truth when he himself won’t come out and explain what exactly happened?
“Which is why if it keeps operating in this way the sleaze tag will get stronger and stronger.”
In the first sign that the Conservatives are being damaged the controversies, an exclusive Ipsos MORI poll in the Evening Standard revealed the party has suffered a five-point drop in the past month.
The poll will fuel fears at senior levels that the “drip drip” of allegations is undermining their hopes in the Hartlepool by election and will cost seats in local and Scottish elections on May 6.
At the weekend it was disclosed that Mr Johnson has now partly paid for the flat redecorations, which are reported to have involved £100 a metre wallpaper, from own pocket, despite leaks that showed a senior Tory donor, Lord Brownlow, sent a £58,000 cheque to Tory HQ in October that was earmarking to meet some of the costs.
The Evening Standard put a series of questions to a senior No 10 spokesman about what happened but received no detailed response.
The questions were:
* Did Lord Brownlow send this money and was his cheque “banked” by the party, or by the Cabinet Office or by the Prime Minister?
* Can you confirm that Lord Brownlow sent the money as a result of being solicited for “donations” towards the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat.
* Did any such solicitation and response put the Prime Minister under a sense of obligation towards Lord Brownlow?
* Was the money repaid to Lord Brownlow and when?
* Why was this event dating back to October, which arguably amounted to a financial favour provided by Lord Brownlow to the Prime Minister, not recorded in the Register of Members Interests in the House of Commons, which members are supposed to update within six weeks?
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was time for “a full and transparent investigation into everything that’s going on”.
Speaking on a campaign visit to the West Midlands, he said: “We’ve got lots of investigations. But we haven’t got anything looking at the pattern of behaviour.
“Day after day there are new allegations of sleaze, of favours, of privileged access.
“We need a full investigation to get to the bottom of that and, most importantly, to make recommendations about changes, because we need to change the rules.”
A No10 spokesperson insisted everything was above board but declined to answer any of the Evening Standards questions directly. “We have transparently laid out the historic expenditure on the annual allowance,” said the spokesman in a statement.
“The Downing Street complex is a working building, as well as containing two Ministerial residences. As has been the case under successive administrations, refurbishments and maintenance are made periodically.
“More information on works on the Downing Street estate, including the residences, will be covered in the Cabinet Office’s 2021 annual report and audited accounts. Any costs of wider refurbishment in this year have been met by the Prime Minister personally.
“At all times, the Government and Ministers have acted in accordance with the appropriate codes of conduct. Cabinet Office officials have been engaged and informed throughout and official advice has been followed.
“All reportable donations are transparently declared and published – either by the Electoral Commission or the House of Commons registrar – in line with the requirements set out in electoral law, and gifts and benefits received in a ministerial capacity are declared in transparency returns.”
It is understood that the PM’s office has been considering using a charitable trust, which Lord Brownlow agreed to chair, as a vehicle for funding improvements to both the residence and other parts of Downing Street. However, the existence of the financial trail leaked out ahead of it being ready.
“Do I think the Prime Minister is an absolutely first-class leader who has led this country in a pandemic?”
But former No 10 chief of staff Lord Barwell said Conservatives should beware a “tipping point” in the opinion polls.
He told Today: “I suspect some people in number 10 will be worried about what else there might be to come. This morning’s headlines are an example of that.”
Ipsos MORI found the Tories on 40 per cent, down from 45 per cent in March, three points clear of Labour who are on 37 per cent, down from 38. The Liberal Democrats are on eight (from six), and the Greens unchanged at five.
The data will dismay Labour MPs because they suggest Sir Keir Starmer has so far failed to capture voters getting disenchanted with the Government and the Prime Minister.
Optimism about the economy is at its highest since August 2014, with a majority of 51 per cent predicting things will get better in the year ahead, against 36 per cent who think they will get worse.
Backing for the Covid vaccine rollout remains sky high, with 86 per cent praising the Government for doing a good job, including 85 per cent of Labour supporters.
Two thirds of people think the Government is relaxing coronavirus restrictions at the right speed. A fifth, 21 per cent, think the pace of unlocking it too quick, and only nine per cent think it too slow.
Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos MORI said: “Conservative supporters are feeling slightly less enthusiastic this month, which is feeding through into vote share, although there is little sign of much switching to Labour.”
Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,090 adults across GB by phone from April 16 to 22. Data are weighted. Full details at www.ipsos-mori.com