Lobbying, leaks and a costly renovation: Boris Johnson faces 'cash for curtains' probe

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has monitored one of the highest coronavirus deaths in Europe, his Brexit project is fraught with problems and his country threatens to fall apart.

But his biggest problem right now is some pillows and a couple of rolls of wallpaper.

On Wednesday, the UK Electoral Commission watchdog opened an investigation into renovations to the Prime Minister’s official residence above the Downing Street offices.

This happens after the allegations that the extensive renovation work was originally paid for with undeclared money from a donor to the Conservative Party.

For many observers, however, it is about much more than that.

Opponents say the “money for pillows” claim is just the latest example of “Tory Sleaze” – Johnson’s Conservative Party has been called the “Tories” for centuries – with managerial jobs and lucrative government contracts being given to friends, relatives and other contacts during the Pandemic.

“What do we get from this Prime Minister and this Conservative government? Shady contracts, jobs for their companions and cash for access,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, 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 at Johnson across the chamber.

Johnson has denied any wrongdoing and said he has now paid the full cost of the renovation. But he refused to answer important questions about who paid what and when.

The Prime Minister lost his usual cheerful demeanor and fell into a red-faced joke when Starmer – former Attorney General of the British State – repeatedly urged him for answers in Parliament.

“Week after week in this country people can tell the difference between a Labor Party that turns and turns with the wind and thinks of nothing but political games,” said Johnson in one of his attempts to change the subject .

Commons spokesman Lindsay Hoyle had to interject: “Alright! Let’s see if we can calm it down a bit.”

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Prime Ministers are given £ 30,000 (about $ 42,000) each year to renovate their official residence at 11 Downing Street. But the Daily Mail and other newspapers have reported that Johnson’s cost was many times that.

Johnson ignored Starmer’s question after reports that Lord Brownlow, a millionaire businessman and Conservative member of the House of Lords, paid £ 58,000 of that bill and donated nearly £ 3 million to the party.

Johnson’s now estranged ex-advisor Dominic Cummings, wrote in a blog post last week that the Prime Minister’s “plans to secretly make donors pay for the renovation were unethical, stupid, possibly illegal, and almost certainly against the rules” when carried out in the manner he intended.

Johnson points to Starmer during the Prime Minister’s Questions Wednesday.Jessica Taylor / British Parliament / AFP – Getty Images

UK lawmakers are required to declare donations or loans over £ 500 within 28 days to ensure that any access or preferential treatment they give to donors is recorded and tracked.

The allegations are serious. The Electoral Commission has the power to impose fines of up to £ 20,000 and, if necessary, refer the matter to the police. However, Johnson says he will be the final judge on whether the Ministerial Code has been violated.

“This government stinks of corruption,” said Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, England. “And by that I mean the number of contracts that went to friends and family who took advantage of the pandemic.”

For others, the questions about Johnson’s apartment are more a symptom of a power struggle raging in the heart of Downing Street.

Critics describe a system in which the Prime Minister’s courtiers have broken down into factions, inform each other and vie for the Prime Minister’s attention.

These newspaper leaks have brought more damaging stories, including claims that Johnson said during a meeting that he would rather “pile the bodies” than put in another national lockdown.

Johnson categorically declined to make this comment, which was covered by most of the UK newspapers, as well as the BBC and its main competitor, ITV. All cited multiple anonymous sources who said they heard the comment.

Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds welcomed key employees in May last year.Leon Neal / Getty Images File

Characters at Johnson’s court include his fiancée Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative communications director who is reportedly behind the opulent renovations.

She managed to offend a bastion of British cultural life when a profile of her in high society magazine Tatler said her renovation was necessary to get rid of what an unnamed visitor described as a “John Lewis Furniture Nightmare” Prime Minister Theresa May.

John Lewis department store is one of the UK’s most popular brands. The annual Christmas TV commercial, which has become an indispensable calendar event, is typical.

Johnson’s problems could worsen in the coming weeks thanks to his former right-wing husband.

Cummings, armed with a catalog of text messages and emails from his time next to the throne, is due to bring evidence to lawmakers next month and has promised to answer any questions he may have.

Cummings “seems to have absolutely every record of every conversation during this time and has absolutely no desire to use it to strike back when attacked,” said Robert Colvile, who co-wrote Johnson’s 2019 election manifesto and now directs the Center for Policy Studies, a right-wing London think tank.

Johnson dealing with Cummings is like “having a gasoline fight with an arsonist,” said Colvile, using the British word for gasoline. “Strategically, it wasn’t the best decision he has ever made.”

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