Downing Street on Sunday refused to answer detailed questions about claims that Boris Johnson tried to get Tory donors to secretly pay for his home improvements, in the latest of a series of sleaze allegations rocking the British government.
The opposition Labour party will on Monday try to force a minister to explain the allegations in the House of Commons through an urgent question. On the same day cabinet secretary Simon Case will be grilled by a select committee about the results of his inquiry into the “chatty rat” who leaked the government’s lockdown plans last November.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former senior aide, triggered the row in allegations published on Friday that included a claim he warned the prime minister not to use the “potentially illegal” donor funding to refurbish his flat above 11 Downing Street.
It was first reported in February that Johnson had asked Tory donors to contribute to the cost of refurbishments overseen by his fiancée Carrie Symonds. Subsequently, emails showed that Tory donor Lord David Brownlow gave £58,000 to cover payments “already made” by the Conservative party towards the project — and wanted the donation to be attributed to a “soon-to-be-formed Downing Street trust”.
On Friday the government announced the prime minister had paid for nearly £60,000 of renovations himself after abandoning the plan to get the sum paid by a donor.
The Electoral Commission, which regulates party payments, confirmed that it had initiated talks with the Conservative party to establish whether any of the payments fell within its remit — and therefore needed to be reported and published.
Liz Truss, international trade secretary, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that the costs had been “covered by the prime minister”. But when asked whether the donor had initially lent the money to Johnson, she said she was “not involved in the details of flat renovations”.
Rachel Reeves, shadow Cabinet Office minister, called for ministers to release all the relevant correspondence. In a series of 14 questions she also called on Johnson to explain whether he had declared any loans “properly” at the appropriate time, along with any required changes to his tax status.
Downing Street did not respond to the specific questions but said it had “transparently” laid out the expenditure on the building.
“More information on works on the Downing Street estate, including the residences, will be covered in the Cabinet Office’s 2021 annual report and audited accounts,” a spokeswoman said. “At all times, the government and ministers have acted in accordance with the appropriate codes of conduct. Cabinet Office officials have been engaged and informed throughout and official advice has been followed.”
All reportable donations would be declared in line with relevant requirements, she added.
Angela Raynor, Labour’s deputy leader, said on Sunday that a new version of the list of ministers’ interests, which should be updated twice a year but has not been refreshed since last July, should be published before the May 6 local elections.
Number 10 has not abandoned the idea of using a trust to fund some works on parts of the government estate, in line with arrangements for country homes Chequers and Dorneywood.
At the same time Johnson’s team is braced for allegations from Cummings that the prime minister could have prevented thousands of deaths in the winter wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The former aide is preparing a dossier of evidence criticising his former boss for the government’s slow response to the second surge of the disease, it was reported on Sunday.
Aides are anxious because Cummings, as one of the most senior figures in Number 10, had access to private conversations, emails and presentations. In November, as the government came under pressure to introduce a second lockdown, Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak were both anxious to resist the move unless it became unavoidable.
Cummings will have a public forum to make his case against Johnson next month when he is due to appear before a joint inquiry by the health and science select committees into the pandemic.
One friend of Cummings predicted fireworks, telling the Financial Times: “He never feints to score. Always shoots for the target . . . and this stuff matters hugely to him.”
Although Britain is basking in one of the most successful vaccine rollout programmes in the world, its death rate from the pandemic of 127,000 does not compare favourably with most other countries.
Cummings also claimed that Henry Newman, a friend of Symonds, was the source of leaks last year about the timing of the second national lockdown.
He wrote that Case, the cabinet secretary, had told him that “all the evidence definitely leads to Henry Newman”, adding that Johnson had then asked if it would be possible to stop the inquiry to avoid a row with his fiancée.
Yet the FT revealed on Friday that MI5, brought in by Case to carry out the investigation, believed the leaker was in fact Cummings.
Case will be asked about the allegations on Monday when quizzed by MPs on the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee.
On Friday Lord Eddie Lister, a senior adviser to Johnson, resigned after it emerged that he had stayed on the payroll of two property developers while working in Downing Street.