LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has overseen one of Europe’s highest coronavirus death tolls, his Brexit project is beset with problems, and his country is in danger of breaking apart.
But his biggest problem right now centers around some cushions and a few rolls of wallpaper.
On Wednesday, Britain’s Electoral Commission watchdog opened an investigation into refurbishments to the prime minister’s official residence above offices at Downing Street, saying there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offense, or offenses, may have occurred.”
This comes after allegations that the lavish renovations were initially paid for using undeclared money from a Conservative Party donor.
But for many observers it is about much more than that.
Opponents say the “cash for cushions” allegation is just the latest example of “Tory sleaze” — Johnson’s Conservative Party has for centuries been nicknamed the “Tories” — whereby senior jobs and lucrative government contracts have been given to friends, relatives and other contacts during the pandemic.
“What do we get from this prime minister and this Conservative government? Dodgy contracts, jobs for their mates and cash for access,” Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said during a fiery debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday. “And who is at the heart of it? The prime minister. Major Sleaze, sitting there,” he added, pointing to Johnson across the chamber.
Johnson has denied any wrongdoing and says he has now paid for the total cost of the refurbishments. But he has declined to answer key questions about who paid what and when.
Losing his usual jovial demeanor, the prime minister descended into a red-faced rant when Starmer — formerly the British state’s chief prosecutor — repeatedly pressed him for answers in Parliament.
“Week after week, the people of this country can see the difference between a Labour Party that twists and turns with the wind and thinks of nothing except playing political games,” Johnson said during one of his attempts to change the subject.
Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was forced to interject, “Order! Let us see if we can calm it down a little.”
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Prime ministers get 30,000 pounds (about $42,000) every year to refurbish their official residence above No. 11 Downing Street. But the Daily Mail and other newspapers have reported that Johnson’s costs ran to many multiples of that.
Johnson ignored Starmer’s question about reports that 58,000 pounds of this bill was paid by Lord Brownlow, a millionaire businessman and Conservative member of Parliament’s upper house, who has donated almost 3 million pounds to the party.
Johnson’s now estranged ex-adviser, Dominic Cummings, wrote in a blog post last week that the prime minister’s “plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules” if carried out in the way he intended.
British lawmakers are supposed to declare donations or loans over 500 pounds within 28 days, an attempt to make sure that any access or preferable treatment they give to the donors is recorded and tracked.
The allegations are serious. The Electoral Commission has the power to issue fines of up to 20,000 pounds and refer the matter to the police if necessary. However Johnson says he will be the final adjudicator of whether the ministerial code has been breached.
“There is the stench of corruption around this government,” according to Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at England’s University of Birmingham. “And by that I mean the number of contracts that have gone to friends and cronies exploiting the pandemic.”
For others, the questions over Johnson’s apartment are more a symptom of a power struggle that has raged at the heart of Downing Street.
Critics describe a system in which courtiers of the prime minister have broken off into factions, briefing against each other and vying for the prime minister’s attention.
These leaks to newspapers have brought more damaging stories, including the allegation that Johnson said during a meeting that he would rather “let the bodies pile up” than introduce another national lockdown.
Johnson has categorically denied making this comment, which was reported by most British newspapers as well as the BBC and its main competitor ITV, all citing multiple anonymous sources who said they heard the remark.
Among the cast of characters in Johnson’s court is his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, a former head of communications for the Conservative Party, who was reportedly behind the opulent renovations.
She managed to offend a bastion of British cultural life when a profile of her in the high-society magazine Tatler said that her refurbishment was needed to get rid of what an unnamed visitor referred to as the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” left by the previous prime minister, Theresa May.
The John Lewis department store is one of Britain’s most beloved brands, typified by its annual Christmas TV commercial that has become a must-watch calendar event.
Johnson’s problems could intensify in the coming weeks, thanks to his former right-hand man.
Cummings, armed with a back catalogue of text messages and emails from his time next to the throne, is due to give evidence to lawmakers next month and has promised to answer any questions they may have.
Cummings “appears to have absolutely every record of every conversation during that period, and has absolutely no compunction about using them to hit back when he’s attacked,” according to Robert Colvile, who co-wrote Johnson’s election manifesto in 2019 and is the director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-leaning London think tank.
Johnson picking a fight with Cummings is like “picking a petrol fight with an arsonist,” Colvile said, using the British word for gasoline. “Strategically, it was not the best decision that he’s ever made.”