Boris Johnson today claimed being portrayed as a snob about John Lewis was his main regret about the huge furore over his lavish Downing Street flat refurb.
The PM insisted the worst thing about the ‘farrago of nonsense’ – which includes an investigation by the elections watchdog into whether the law has been broken – was the misrepresentation of his views about the store chain.
‘I love John Lewis!’ he told reporters on a visit to a school in London, saying he had nothing to ‘worry about’.
The controversial overhaul is said to have been sparked because his fiancee Carrie Symonds could not stand the ‘John Lewis nightmare’ decor left by Theresa May.
The jokey response came as Labour complained to the parliamentary standards commissioner over allegations Mr Johnson failed to declare Conservative contributions towards the works – a charge that could even lead to his suspension from the House.
Downing Street fears that a Tory paper trail could leave Mr Johnson exposed in the separate Electoral Commission probe into the murky funding of his grace-and-favour residence.
The PM and Ms Symonds face handing over emails and phone messages relating to the makeover.
They could also be interviewed – along with former chief aide Dominic Cummings – as the watchdog looks at whether donations to foot the costs were illegally kept secret.
Although the inquiry is currently targeted at the Conservative Party rather than Mr Johnson himself, concerns have been voiced that its records could lead back to the premier.
‘The worry is that there could be a paper trail,’ a government source told the Times. ‘There was a very limited number of people who knew about the funding arrangements at CCHQ. It’s not clear how this will end.’
Mr Johnson said this afternoon that he would comply with ‘whatever’ the Electoral Commission want, but he added: ‘I don’t think there’s anything to see here.’
In a bombshell move yesterday, the Electoral Commission said it had carried out an initial assessment and was ‘satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred’.
It has sweeping powers to demand documents and interview witnesses under caution. Failure to comply or tell the truth is a criminal offence.
No serving prime minister has ever been interviewed under caution in relation to an alleged breach of the law.
Boris Johnson shrugged off the row about the No11 refurb as he visited a school in London today with Rishi Sunak – who has pointedly revealed that he funded all the redecoration of his Downing Street flat
The PM and Carrie Symonds face the prospect of handing over emails and phone messages after the elections watchdog dramatically announced an investigation
The couple’s lavish update of the decor was reportedly inspired by a desire to get rid of the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ and the department store was quick to poke fun at the apparent revelation
John Lewis yesterday shared a photo of one of their delivery lorries park outside Downing Street with the caption: ‘Good thing we have a recycling service for old pre-loved furniture’
John Lewis mocks PM over furniture snobbery
John Lewis mocked Boris Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds yesterday amid the row over refurbishment of their Downing Street flat.
The couple’s lavish update of the decor was reportedly inspired by a desire to get rid of the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ left over by Theresa May.
The description of the flat – attributed to a visitor – was included in a recent Tatler article on Ms Symonds.
But the department store poked fun at the jibe yesterday as it took to Twitter to suggest it had something for ‘almost’ everyone.
The firm later shared a photo of one of their delivery lorries park outside Downing Street with the caption: ‘Good thing we have a recycling service for old pre-loved furniture’.
Mr Cummings, who is now in a state of war with Mr Johnson, claimed in a blog last week that he had warned the PM the ‘plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations’.
He sparked alarm for Mr Johnson’s allies by saying he would be ‘happy’ to tell the Electoral Commission what he knows.
PMs have an annual allowance for improvements to their residence, and sources told MailOnline that the £30,000 available for 2020-21 was the only public funding used for the refurb.
Mr Johnson repeatedly dodged yesterday when asked whether the extra costs of the work – believed to be £58,000 – was initially paid from Tory funds, merely insisting he had now footed the bill.
It is understood that Labour has asked the parliamentary commissioner for standards to look into the issues raised and whether any rules been broken.
Mr Johnson has previously been warned by the Commons standards committee for failing to declare interests.
In 2019, after he made public apologies, he was told he would face a more ‘serious sanction’ if he breached the rules again. That could potentially mean a recommendation of suspension, although it would need to be approved by the whole House.
The parliamentary commissioner only reveals what MPs she is investigating in limited circumstances, after the Commons downgraded transparency some years ago.
The premier insisted today that newly-appointed ministerial standards adviser Lord Geidt will do an ‘outstanding job’ in his separate review into whether the refurbishments were properly handled.
However, Labour has said the adviser’s powers are too weak because the PM remains the ‘ultimate arbiter’ of the code, meaning he ‘effectively marks his own homework’.
Sir Keir Starmer moved to turn up the heat today, visiting a John Lewis store in Manchester and saying: ‘If there’s an innocent explanation, the easiest thing is to set up a camera pool and take the question and answer it.
‘The Prime Minister should do that this morning, then we can move on and concentrate on things that matter most to people, which is their jobs, particularly in the autumn when a lot of people are coming off furlough, what’s happening on the NHS and what we are doing about the fact that the rate of crime is going up across the country.’
He also said the planned investigation into the matter by Lord Geidt was inadequate.
Mr Starmer said: ‘The idea of having an adviser who can investigate only if the Prime Minister says so just shows how weak the system is.
‘That’s why what we are proposing is that we clean up Westminster. We have a proper, independent commission.’
Earlier, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi again insisted the PM had not broken the ministerial code, adding that he had been ‘advised by officials’ throughout and would follow the conclusions of his newly appointed standards adviser Lord Geidt.
‘The prime minister has answered umpteen questions, including saying that if the Lord Geidt finds that the prime minister needs to make other declarations, he will then make those,’ Mr Zahawi said.
‘But he has throughout this whole process been advised by his officials, and he has clearly paid for the refurbishment.’
Mr Johnson took part in a science lesson at King Solomon Academy in Marylebone
The PM insisted the worst thing about the ‘farrago of nonsense’ – which includes an investigation by the elections watchdog into whether the law has been broken – was the misrepresentation of his views about John Lewis
Boris Johnson (pictured running today) and Carrie Symonds may have to hand over personal emails and phone messages to an official inquiry
In a bombshell move, the Electoral Commission yesterday opened a formal investigation into the funding of the lavish refurbishment of the couple’s official flat. Pictured: A design by Lulu Lytle, who is believed to have carried out the refurbishment
The inquiry follows a string of revelations in the Mail suggesting a £58,000 cost overrun may have been paid originally by the Conservative Party before being covered by Tory donor Lord Brownlow.
Mr Johnson angrily told MPs yesterday that he had settled the bill with his own money.
But he ducked repeated questions about who originally paid out when the work at 11, Downing Street was completed last year. Failure to declare donations is an offence under electoral law, punishable by fines of up to £20,000.
The Electoral Commission can pass on investigations to the police if it uncovers evidence of criminal offences or believes its efforts are being frustrated.
Downing Street yesterday said Mr Johnson was willing to co-operate fully with the inquiry, which could demand to see relevant emails and WhatsApp messages. His fiancée Ms Symonds, who masterminded the costly redecoration, could also face questions.
Asked if Mr Johnson was willing to be questioned in person, his press secretary said the commission’s investigation was a matter for the Conservative Party, and the Prime Minister ‘will of course be happy to assist if asked’.
More details has emerged of the efforts to set up a charitable trust that could support upkeep of the Downing Street buildings.
Labour peer Baroness Jay told BBC Newsnight that she had been approached earlier this year by Lord Brownlow, who ‘asked if I would like to become a trustee on the Downing Street Trust’.
She said that the proposed trust ‘would be for the public part of Downing Street not the residences’, although nothing formal was ever agreed.
They could also be interviewed – along with former chief aide Dominic Cummings (pictured together in 2019) – as part of the Electoral Commission probe into whether donations to foot the costs were illegally kept secret
The inquiry follows a string of revelations in the Mail suggesting a £58,000 cost overrun may have been paid originally by the Conservative Party before being covered by Tory donor Lord Brownlow. Pictured: Lulu Lytle
Labour peer ‘invited to join No10 Trust’
The Tory donor who is thought to have given a loan to Boris Johnson to pay for his flat’s makeover approached a Labour peer to sit on a trust overseeing the work.
Baroness Jay, daughter of former prime minister James Callaghan, said Lord Brownlow asked her to become a member of the proposed Downing Street Trust.
Last night, the baroness said she understood it would be for the public part of the buildings, not the residences.
She told BBC Two’s Newsnight: ‘Nothing formal was agreed [but] I did say I’d be interested… on the basis it were similar to the Chequers Trust, of which I used to be a member.’
Tory MPs were aghast at the row, which comes when the Government is facing sleaze allegations over lobbying and procurement deals and only a week from a major round of local elections.
‘It is a stupid self-inflicted wound that makes us look shifty and out of touch,’ one former minister told the Mail.
‘If it had been dealt with straight away then people would have thought nothing of it. But the attempt to cover up what happened looks dodgy.’
Another veteran Tory said: ‘I genuinely think we are in trouble. You can argue that none of the things add up to much on their own. But there is a carelessness and arrogance in No 10 that is very dangerous.’
There was also resentment in some quarters toward Ms Symonds, with the PM’s fiancée dubbed ‘Carrie Antoinette’ on Tory WhatsApp groups over her allegedly expensive tastes.
But there was also anger at the Electoral Commission over the timing of the announcement, which came less than an hour before Mr Johnson was due to answer questions in the Commons.
Mr Johnson appeared rattled in the chamber after Sir Keir Starmer accused him of ‘major sleaze’.
Jabbing his finger at the Labour leader, he said he was ‘playing political games, whereas this party gets on with delivering on the people’s priorities’. He insisted no laws or rules had been broken, adding that he had ‘met the requirements that I have been obliged to meet in full’.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had not received any requests for information from the commission.
But David Howarth, a former commissioner at the elections watchdog, said it was ‘inconceivable’ that his conduct would not be looked at along with that of the Conservative Party.
The Cambridge law professor said: ‘The investigators will look at every single transaction relating to payment for the works on the flat with a view to finding out whether reportable donations have been reported in time. The question is, who paid the bill and was it reported?’
Prime ministers can spend up to £30,000 a year of public money on their private residence. But the makeover bill came in much higher, prompting Mr Johnson to order a search to find someone to pay for the £58,000 excess. He was forced to pay himself – after various parties are all said to have funded the work at some point.
MAIL EXPOSÉS HE CAN’T PAPER OVER
Scoop by scoop, how we uncovered ‘Wallpapergate’ before the rest of Fleet St caught up …as told by SIMON WALTERS, reporter who broke them all
1. Saturday, February 27
The Daily Mail breaks the story of the Downing Street flat makeover scandal. We describe how Carrie Symonds had urged the Prime Minister to sack Cabinet Office director of propriety and ethics Helen MacNamara in a dispute over the bill. On being told he would have to pay for the bulk of the refurbishment, Boris Johnson asked if Tory donors could pay for it instead.
2. Tuesday, March 2
We reveal that Mr Johnson wanted to pay for the refurbishment by creating a charitable trust based on the one used to maintain the White House. But it was to be funded by Tory donors, risking conflicts of interest. Miss Symonds hired upmarket designer Lulu Lytle to carry out the makeover. Miss Lytle charges up to £840 for a roll of wallpaper and £19,950 for a sofa.
3. Wednesday, March 3
The first significant public criticism of the makeover – reportedly inspired by interior designer Lulu Lytle – and plans to fund it via a charitable trust comes from Sir Alistair Graham, former head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He says the proposal was ‘monstrous’ and may be illegal. It is the first sign that the scheme could run into serious trouble.
4. Friday, March 5
We reveal how Mr Johnson feared the final bill could be £200,000 and is angry at our reports, ordering No 10 aides: ‘Don’t talk about the flat!’. The Mail also reveals the identity of wealthy Tory supporters whose names had been discussed in Downing Street as possible donors towards the flat refit. They included Lord Bamford, the boss of construction giant JCB who has given millions to the Tory party. Conservative minister Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, a close friend of Mr Johnson and Miss Symonds, was also mentioned as a possible donor.
5. Saturday, March 6
Despite Tory HQ and No10 stonewalling, we reveal that having been talked out of getting donors to help fund the makeover, Mr Johnson secretly got the Tory party to pay. No10 denies wrongdoing. But Tory HQ is ‘in meltdown’ at the news. Party funds are for political campaigning, not the leader’s furnishings. The party and the PM must declare such donations. Neither did, and the consequences are serious – as they have found.
6. Saturday, March 13
A new name enters the scandal: Low-profile City tycoon and Tory donor Lord Brownlow. We reveal the ex-policeman turned entrepreneur and philanthropist has come to the rescue. And the estimated ‘excess’ amount paid by Lord Brownlow that the Cabinet Office had refused to fund? We reveal it to be £60,000. Mr Johnson was ‘rattled’ by our disclosures.
7. Wednesday, March 17
No 10 is now in full panic mode. Having failed to stop us revealing the truth, it is now considering handing back the £60,000 donation from Lord Brownlow in a bid to cover up all the chicanery. It intends to say it came from the ‘Downing St Trust’, not Lord Brownlow, any other Tory donor or the party.
8. Saturday, March 20
Things get serious. The Electoral Commission confirms it is questioning Tory chiefs over the party’s payments for the flat. The commission wants to know if, as we reported, the party paid £60,000 towards the flat, why neither it nor Mr Johnson declared it – as they have to.
9 Friday, March 26
Enter Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. The Labour Party, lagging behind the Tories in the polls, seizes on the scandal to knock some of the shine off Mr Johnson’s popularity. Labour asks Mr Case to look into ‘eye-watering’ amounts spent on the flat makeover.
10. Wednesday, March 31
Sir Keir Starmer demands an official inquiry. Labour lawyers write to the Electoral Commission accusing the Prime Minister of trying to conceal donations for the flat and asking if the issue warrants criminal proceedings.
11. Wednesday, April 21
The Mail reveals two ‘killer’ emails sent by Lord Brownlow that prove the Tories tried to hide the scandal. An incendiary one, sent in October, told how he gave £58,000 to the Tories to cover the same sum it spent on the flat months earlier.