In the Commons yesterday, Boris Johnson glared over the despatch box as Sir Keir Starmer hissed a word that has haunted the Conservatives for 30 years. “Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze,” taunted Starmer. “And it’s all on his watch.” The return of the S-word, which harried the John Major government from 1994 to its oblivion in the 1997 election, follows revelations over recent weeks about hidden influence, text messages and subterranean contacts between Whitehall and the City.
The feeding frenzy shows no sign of abating. Chancellor Rishi Sunak and former PM David Cameron face being questioned by a Commons committee on text messages relating to the financier Lex Greensill. The Electoral Commission is quizzing Tory HQ over donations made by at least one tycoon towards the refurbishment of Johnson’s private apartment, gifts that many experts think should be openly declared. A spotlight has also fallen again on NHS contracts, highlighting Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s shares in a family firm that won £300,000 of work from NHS Wales this year.
The disclosures have ripped open old wounds among senior Conservatives. They have also breathed new life into Starmer. Although Johnson responded with insouciance to Starmer’s charges a week ago, he looked tense when the same subject dominated PMQs for a second week running. Alarm bells are ringing at No 10 that sleaze claims are out of control again.
But the irony, claim Tory insiders, is that the Prime Minister’s office itself is to blame for the bad smell that hangs over Downing Street. Two separate sources have told the Standard that one of Johnson’s senior advisers was widely suspected to have triggered the furore by briefing out how Greensill, the son of an Australian farmer, won access and influence at the heart of the establishment.
“It was a hatchet job to hurt Cameron,” claimed one Conservative insider. “Boris would not have known about it, let alone approved of it. The PM would not have wanted things to get out of hand.” Another Tory, who named the same individual separately, said: “This is where people think the original leaks came from. If so, they have backfired spectacularly.”
The adviser concerned denies any wrongdoing and is supported by official sources at No 10, one of whom questioned the lack of a clear motive. “This person was not involved in any of this and any claim to the contrary is wrong,” said an official, speaking on behalf of No 10. How and why the stream of sleaze allegations began might never be known. What is not in doubt is that the torrent is lapping closer to Johnson’s door. No fewer than three controversies at No 10 were in full flow this week.
Perhaps the most bizarre is the allegation, not denied by No 10, that Johnson’s own residence in Downing Street was treated to a £200,000 refurbishment paid for by Tory donors, whose names were concealed. The claims are almost comical, including that the makeover led by his fiancée Carrie Symonds was finished off with £100-a-metre wallpaper by Lulu Lytle. Not so funny is the leak of memos that suggest an exercise was carried out to avoid declaring the names of rich donors.
An email to party chiefs from Lord Brownlow, a major party donor who was ennobled in 2019, made clear that he was giving a £58,000 donation via the party towards the refit. However, no mention of this gift has appeared in the public register kept by the Electoral Commission of political gifts, nor has it been declared by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons register of members’ interests.
Instead it was intended to be the first donation to a “soon to be formed” charitable trust, which Lord Brownlow has agreed to chair, set up to improve and decorate the PM’s quarters and 10 Downing Street.
The use of trusts as a channel for gifts is not a new idea, but it was discredited in the Nineties when New Labour benefited from a so-called blind trust run by Lord Levy. Among questions for the Tories is whether Boris Johnson knows who is bankrolling his wallpaper, and whether donors give cash in the hope of earning his gratitude. The Standard asked Conservative HQ for a description of the trust but has heard nothing.
Scandal number two broke with the revelation that Johnson promised to “fix” tax rules at the request of tycoon James Dyson. Johnson believes he was in the right because neither he nor Dyson were seeking any personal gain: the issue arose when he asked Dyson to provide ventilators to save Covid-19 patients in the first wave of the pandemic. Dyson offered to fly experts from the Far East to the UK to take part in the mission but raised the issue of how their tax status would be affected.
A third controversy broke with the disclosure that Johnson asked Lord Udny-Lister (senior aide Eddie Lister) to check progress of a stalled deal in which Saudi groups tried to buy Newcastle United, following a message to him from the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. The PM is said to have replied “brilliant” when told it was due to go through.
What all three Johnson controversies have in common is that they involve the leaks of confidential memos or emails that would be seen by a handful of aides or officials. “It suggests there are disaffected senior officials and operatives at the heart of the machine,” says a former Tory aide. “People can scent trouble.”