Cabinet minister says she will ‘take PM on his word’ amid briefing war

Emma Bowden and Sam Blewett, PA
·5-min read

A Cabinet minister has said she will take Boris Johnson “on his word” after the Prime Minister denied saying he was prepared to let “bodies pile high” rather than order a third coronavirus lockdown.

It comes amid fresh allegations that Mr Johnson told aides he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than return to restrictions in September, as he battles a bitter briefing war that engulfed Number 10.

A growing number of sources were reported to have told how Mr Johnson said he was prepared to let “bodies pile high” rather than order a third shutdown, an accusation which the Prime Minister has branded as “total rubbish”.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said she was not aware of any politician who had said “anything like that” as she insisted the public were focused on the pandemic and the road map out of lockdown.

“The Prime Minister says he didn’t say them, and he said that yesterday, I think to Sky, so I take the Prime Minister on his word,” she told Sky News.

“I’m not aware that any politician has said anything like that, or indeed any other person that I’m aware of.

“There’s an element here about trying to keep on with the main task at hand.

“We’ve got through this challenging time, we’re still not out of it, that’s why we’re still encouraging people to take up their vaccines.”

Coronavirus
The Work and Pensions Secretary said she was taking the Prime Minister ‘at his word’ (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said it was upsetting to those who have lost loved ones, telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The remarks are sickening, they are disgusting, they are crass, they are wrong.”

Mr Johnson will tell the Cabinet on Tuesday that the Government must “stay totally focused on the public’s priorities, on fighting Covid, delivering vaccines and creating jobs as we proceed on the path back to normality”, according to reports.

In the latest allegation against Mr Johnson, he was reported on Monday 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, which said it had been told Mr Johnson said he would rather “let it rip” during this period than implement another lockdown, as a “gross distortions” of the Prime Minister’s position.

Meanwhile, Ms Coffey defended the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat in Number 11 and said it was “no surprise” that he wanted to make changes, after reports of how he paid for it surfaced.

Coronavirus – Thu May 14, 2020
The Prime Minister and his fiancee Carrie Symonds live in the Number 11 flat (Victoria Jones/PA)

Downing Street and the Tories declined to deny an ITV report stating that the Conservative Campaign Headquarters paid the Cabinet Office to cover initial costs of the refurbishments, with Mr Johnson now repaying the party.

A Downing Street spokesman said that the “costs of wider refurbishment have been met by the Prime Minister personally”, adding: “Gifts and benefits received in a ministerial capacity are, and will continue to be, declared in transparency returns.”

Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said: “This is yet another panicked attempt by the Conservatives to cover up the truth behind the original donors for the luxury refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.”

Ms Coffey told LBC: “The Prime Minister has probably spent more time in the Number 10 flat than prime ministers normally would.

“Also, the birth of his young son, having his family there, so I think it’s no surprise if people with a different sort of family atmosphere moving into a private residence in Number 10 want to make changes.”

Asked if she would spend £5,900 on an armchair, Ms Coffey added: “The point is that the Prime Minister has paid for those.

“I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to spend their money how they wish, when they are considering their family in the residence where they spend a lot of time.”

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case said the Prime Minister has asked him to review the matter, after former aide Dominic Cummings said Mr Johnson wanted donors to “secretly pay” for the work in a move which would have been “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal”.

Mr Cummings released his onslaught after he was accused by Number 10 of a series of damaging leaks, including text message exchanges between Mr Johnson and the entrepreneur Sir James Dyson.

Ministers are now concerned at what he may say when he gives evidence to MPs investigating the Government’s response to the pandemic next month.

Ms Coffey said the public will have made “their own judgment” on the former adviser following his press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden last year.

The Prime Minister stood by Mr Cummings when the senior aide found himself in the eye of a media storm after driving his family to County Durham during the first coronavirus lockdown.

Ms Coffey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think that people will have come into contact with Dominic Cummings for the first time last year, when he did a press conference in the Rose Garden.

“They, I’m sure, will have made their own judgment on what they think of that.”