Britain's Electoral Commission opened a formal investigation into the financing of the refurbishment of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street apartment, saying there were grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed.
Eight days before local elections across England, as well as the election of the Welsh and Scottish regional assemblies, Johnson is facing a stream of allegations about everything from his muddled initial handling of the Covid-19 crisis to questions about who leaked what from his office.
"We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred," the Electoral Commission said of the financing of the apartment above Number 11 Downing Street where Johnson resides.
"We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case," the commission said.
The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works fall within the regime regulated by the commission and whether such funding was reported as required.
If it finds that an offence has occurred – and that there is sufficient evidence – then the commission can issue a fine or refer the matter to the police.
Asked last month about the refurbishment, Johnson's spokeswoman said all donations, gifts and benefits were properly declared, and that no Conservative Party funds were being used to pay for the refurbishment.
Though Johnson has over the years repeatedly weathered gaffes, crises over Brexit and disclosures about his adultery, he is now grappling with an array of accusations which opponents say show he is unfit for office.
The opposition says the allegations show Johnson's government is riddled by sleaze and cronyism, including lobbying by former Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of the finance company Greensill Capital.
His supporters deny he has done anything wrong and say he is focused on the COVID-19 crisis.
Downing Street apartment
Johnson has a taxpayer-funded 30,000 pound ($42,000) allowance each year for maintaining and furnishing his official residence, but anything above that must be met by the prime minister.
Ministers have said Johnson has paid for the work himself, but it is unclear when he paid, and whether the refurbishment, reported to have cost 200,000 pounds ($280,000) was initially financed by a loan of some kind. Under political financing rules, Johnson would have been required to declare this.
Critics say that if the funds had come originally from a Conservative Party supporter, this would raise the question of influence-peddling. The opposition Labour Party has demanded an explanation.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote to Simon Case, the head of the civil service, asking him to investigate answers about the affair given by Johnson's then-press secretary earlier this year. Allegra Stratton, a former BBC journalist, was Johnson’s press secretary from October until last week.
Dominic Cummings, who was Johnson's key adviser on the Brexit campaign and helped him to win an election in 2019 before an acrimonious split last year, said on Friday that Johnson had wanted donors to pay for the renovation secretly.
Cummings said he had told the prime minister such plans were "unethical, foolish, possibly illegal".
Asked if Johnson had received a loan from the Conservative Party for the refurbishment, transport minister Grant Shapps told Sky News: "The prime minister has already paid for it."
In a further potentially damaging allegation, the Daily Mail newspaper on Sunday cited unidentified sources as saying that, in October, shortly after agreeing to a second lockdown, Johnson had told a meeting in Downing Street: "No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands."
Asked on Monday whether he had made the remark, Johnson told broadcasters: "No, but again, I think the important thing, I think, that people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work, and they have."