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Labour demands investigation after Cummings says funding plan was ‘unethical, foolish and possibly illegal’
Boris Johnson is facing mounting questions over expensive renovations made to his flat above 11 Downing Street.
Labour has called for a full inquiry into how the improvements were paid for amid “speculation the bill could be as much as £200,000”, despite the prime minister receiving only “an annual public grant of £30,000 to spend on the flat”, the BBC reports.
Pressure has grown after Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings claimed in a blog post that the prime minister had planned “to have donors secretly pay for the renovation” in a move Cummings described as “unethical, foolish [and] possibly illegal”.
Fixing a hole
In the blog post published on Friday afternoon, Cummings alleges that Johnson “stopped speaking” to him about the plans to renovate the prime ministerial flat after his then adviser told him the plan would “almost certainly” break the “rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended”.
Cummings, who is now involved in a “spectacular war of words” with his former boss, added that he “refused to help him organise these payments” so his “knowledge about them is therefore limited”. However, he said that he would be “happy to tell the Cabinet Secretary or Electoral Commission what I know concerning this matter”.
The controversy began after reports that Johnson had considered setting up a charitable foundation to fund the renovations. Leaked emails obtained by the Daily Mail have since revealed that the Conservatives “used nearly £60,000 of party funds” on the “lavish makeover”, including earmarking specific donations to fund the decoration.
Conservative Party co-chair Ben Elliot “was told in October that a £58,000 donation to party coffers was earmarked for the refit”, the paper reports, a sum that “has not yet been declared to the Electoral Commission”. The paper adds that the money was to be used to “cover an identical amount secretly paid months earlier by Tory HQ for the refurbishment”, which it suggests was an “attempt to disguise” the original spending.
Cabinet Office minister Lord True was sent out to bat for Johnson over the weekend, claiming that “any costs of wider refurbishment in this year have been met by the prime minister personally”.
He said that “painting, sanding and floorboard work had been done by longstanding Downing Street contractors”, the BBC reports, though “details of how much of the £30,000 allowance was spent during the 2020-21 financial year are not yet available”.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for a “full and transparent investigation” into how the work was funded, arguing that the allegations risk undermining trust in government.
No. 10 has denied any wrongdoing and has resolutely stated that “beyond the taxpayer-funded allowance given to all PMs”, Johnson was “footing the bill himself”, Politico’s Alex Wickham reports.
However, Wickham adds that if Johnson did pay out of his own pocket, a question still remains over “whether a Tory donor helped pay for the works initially – meaning a loan would need to be declared to the Electoral Commission”.
In The Independent, chief political commentator John Rentoul notes that “we should be clear that what was wrong about Johnson’s plan was the secrecy, not the funding”. “As a taxpayer, I would be delighted to have a Conservative donor pick up the bill for doing up the prime minister’s flat in that historic building,” Rentoul says. “But, obviously, we should know about it.”
On that question, The i reports that HMRC is seeking urgent “clarification” on where the £58,000 to pay for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat came from. An HMRC source told the paper that Johnson will be “treated like any other taxpayer” if it transpired that he personally benefited from any donations or loans spent on the refurbishment.
“Things like this are declared by UK taxpayers all the time and it is the role of HMRC to clarify with people if these are subject to tax,” the source said. “The Prime Minister is no different to anyone else in this regard.”