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Elections watchdog launches probe into 'offences' over No11 flat

Elections watchdog says there are ‘reasonable grounds to suspect that offences have occurred’ as it launches official probe into Boris Johnson’s £88,000 Downing Street refurbishment

  • Boris Johnson is facing fresh pressure on his No11 flat refurbishment ahead of a stormy PMQs showdown 
  • Opposition MPs have stepped up their attack over whether Tories paid £58,000 without declaring the gift 
  • The premier is also struggling to fend off claims that he made crass comments about letting Covid ‘rip’

Boris Johnson’s crisis deepened today as the elections watchdog launched a formal probe into whether ‘offences’ have been committed in the Downing Street flat row.

The Electoral Commission said there were ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ the law might have been broken over the controversial No11 refurbishment. 

In a statement that heaps pressure on the PM, the watchdog said: ‘We have been in contact with the Conservative Party since late March and have conducted an assessment of the information they have provided to us. 

‘We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred. We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case.

‘The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the Commission and whether such funding was reported as required.

‘We will provide an update once the investigation is complete. We will not be commenting further until that point.’

The commission looks at whether the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 has been broken – although it can refer other suspected offences to the police. It is not clear what part of the Act it believes might have been breached, but penalties can range from a fine to up to a year in prison.   

Ministers desperately tried to shore up Mr Johnson today as opposition MPs branded him a ‘serial liar’ over the £88,000 flat refurb and ‘bodies piling up’ comment.

In another effort to weather the immediate storm, No10 confirmed that Lord Geidt has been new installed as the government’s new independent adviser on ministerial interests. He is expected to launch an inquiry into the flat situation. 

Mr Johnson is facing a gruelling PMQs appearance with Sir Keir Starmer set to turn up the heat after a slew of revelations and a briefing war with former aide Dominic Cummings.

Scrutiny over the overhaul of the flat above No11 where Mr Johnson and fiancee Carrie Symonds and son Wilf live has refused to abate despite the government’s efforts to draw a line under the issue. 

Downing Street has declined to deny that Tory funds were used to cover £58,000 of the costs – on top of the £30,000 annual allowance given by the taxpayer.

But the gift last July has not been declared anywhere as yet, and Mr Johnson now insists he has paid the sum himself – with speculation he took out a loan. 

No10 has come under fire for saying Conservative funds are not currently being used for a refurbishment, without addressing the issue of whether they were in the past.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tried to gloss over the row in a round of interviews this morning, claiming it is a ‘story of the past’ and declarations will be made. 

Amid the fresh revelations as the problems threaten to snowball for the PM today:

  • Mr Johnson’s new chief of staff is said to have warned it was ‘crazy’ to ask wealthy Tory donors to fund a lavish renovation of the Prime Minister’s flat; 
  • Downing Street apparently approached Labour former chancellor Alistair Darling to see if he would sit on a trust to oversee the refurbishment, but he said no; 
  • Insiders fear Dominic Cummings could publish WhatsApp messages that are at the heart of the government’s who-said-what row over; 
  • Mr Johnson is still under investigation over his declaration of a luxury holiday to Mustique after his huge election victory in December 2019.  

Scrutiny over the overhaul of the flat above No11 where Boris Johnson and fiancee Carrie Symonds and son Wilf live has refused to abate despite the government’s efforts to draw a line under the issue

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tried to gloss over the No11 flat row in a round of interviews this morning, claiming it is a ‘story of the past’ and declarations will be made

In fact, the upmarket interior eco designer Lulu Lytle (designs pictured) – whose Soane Britain company was commissioned by Miss Symonds – sells ‘Yellow Gold’ and ‘Old Gold’ wallpaper

But shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy told Sky News that ‘somebody is lying here’. 

Sleaze probe into PM’s Mustique holiday still going on 

A sleaze inquiry into Boris Johnson’s trip to Mustique is still ongoing some 16 months after the Prime Minister’s lavish Caribbean holiday.

Downing Street yesterday said Mr Johnson had made all relevant declarations after the ten-day luxury villa break, which was worth £15,000.

But senior Tories are braced for fresh criticism of Mr Johnson over how his and Carrie Symonds’ trip was funded.

The PM recorded the holiday in the register of MPs’ interests last year, stating the break came courtesy of Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross, who owns a holiday villa on the island.

A spokesman for Mr Ross, a long-time Tory donor, initially told the Mail that the tycoon had not paid for the trip, describing the claim as a ‘mistake’. They later backtracked, saying Mr Ross had ‘facilitated’ the holiday in December 2019. 

‘We are focused on the pandemic but we also want to know that we have a Prime Minister in this country who puts the interests of the people in this country first,’ she said.

‘The problem with what has gone on over the flat is we still don’t know who loaned the Prime Minister this money, he won’t even confirm or deny whether it was loaned or not, we don’t know why he didn’t declare it and we don’t know what he offered them in return.

‘The reason those rules are there is so we know who powerful figures are beholden to, who they may owe favours to so we can properly scrutinise and check that they’re not acting in the interests of a privileged few over and above the majority of people in this country.’

Green MP Caroline Lucas accused the PM of ‘lying on an industrial scale’.

‘Unfortunately I say he is a serial liar. This is a man who isn’t just lying occasionally, he is routinely lying at the dispatch box and that makes it impossible for MPs to hold him to account,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

A No10 spokeswoman said renovation costs of Mr Johnson’s living quarters, beyond those provided for by the £30,000 annual allowance, had been ‘met by the Prime Minister personally’, adding: ‘Conservative Party funds are not being used for this.’

The Conservative Party leader has faced a flurry of questions regarding how the revamp was paid for following a fallout with former aide Dominic Cummings.

The former No10 chief, who quit his post last year, said Mr Johnson wanted donors to ‘secretly pay’ for the work in an ‘unethical, foolish, possibly illegal’ move.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, head of the Civil Service, has been tasked with reviewing the refurbishment of the flat in No11, while the Electoral Commission is also looking into the affair.

Mr Johnson is also likely to face a reckoning over whether the arrangement should have been declared on the Commons register of interests.

He has previously been forced to apologise to the House for failing to abide by transparency rules – with a warning two years ago that he will face ‘serious sanction’ if he strays again. That could potentially mean suspension, although it would need to be approved by all MPs. 

The fresh claims about the flat come as Downing Street looked to sidestep allegations Mr Johnson told aides he would rather let coronavirus ‘rip’ than impose a lockdown last year.

His official spokesman said instead that the Prime Minister’s actions were being distorted in words that did not amount to a denial, unlike No 10’s strong rejection of the suggestion Mr Johnson said in October he would rather see ‘bodies pile high’ than announce a third lockdown.

Mr Shapps said the Prime Minister had ‘paid 100 per cent for the refurbishments’, seeking to portray the furore as an historical curiosity. 

The minister said Cabinet Secretary Simon Case will answer whether Mr Johnson was given an initial loan to cover the costs of refurbishments.

Mr Shapps told Times Radio: ‘I’ll give you a completely straight answer, the Cabinet Secretary is actually conducting a review to look at the advice and the order in which everything happened with the maintenance of Downing Street.

‘I just don’t have the answer but the Cabinet Secretary will and it will be transparently produced in the annual report and the accounts of the Cabinet Office.’  

Mr Johnson has also been under fire over claims he said he would rather ‘let the bodies pile high’ than trigger another lockdown last Autumn.

The premier has flatly denied making the remark, but the Mail, BBC and ITV have been told by multiple sources that he did. 

Meanwhile, Sir James Dyson mounted a defence of his contact with Mr Johnson during the coronavirus pandemic after a text message he sent was made public by the BBC last week.

The British entrepreneur said it was a ‘grotesque mischaracterisation’ by the BBC to suggest he was a Tory backer, following his decision to message the Prime Minister about tax and other issues while designing extra ventilators at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in spring 2020.

‘The BBC’s characterisation of me as a prominent Conservative donor, or supporter, leveraging a position of power to extract favours from the Prime Minister, is completely untrue,’ he wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

‘I have met Boris Johnson only three times – always with officials – the last time in 2016. I have not attended any Conservative social events.’

On a BBC corrections and clarifications web page, the publicly-funded broadcaster responded to Sir James’ objections to the way he had been described.

‘In our coverage of texts he had sent to the Prime Minister we referred in various outlets to Sir James Dyson as a prominent Conservative supporter or said he backed the Conservatives,’ the website entry on Monday said.

‘Sir James says this is factually incorrect. We are happy to set the record straight.’

‘She’s buying gold wallpaper. It’s costing tens and tens of thousands… I cannot afford it’: Boris Johnson’s despairing cry to Downing St aides about lavish new No 10 decor – as revealed in definitive account of THAT scandal 

BY SIMON WALTERS FOR THE DAILY MAIL 

Like many of the most explosive political bombshells, the Downing Street flat scandal had a long fuse.

It was fourteen months ago – back in February 2020 – that officials first became alarmed by renovations to the No 11 flat.

They had good reason not to pay too much attention to decorators who had been at work there since the New Year. A dozen or so cases of Covid had been reported in Britain, and the possibility that it could endanger the UK was starting to be taken seriously by some Downing Street officials.

It was fourteen months ago – back in February 2020 – that officials first became alarmed by renovations to the No 11 flat. Pictured: Lulu Lytle’s collection

Mr Johnson was still on a high from his election triumph in December 2019 and had had a Christmas holiday in Mustique in the Caribbean with partner Carrie Symonds – they were still to become engaged.

The couple were overjoyed to learn she was pregnant, though they had not yet shared the news with the rest of the world.

As is now well known, at this stage life-long libertarian Mr Johnson was among those who were less alarmed about the risk of a pandemic.

But he was suddenly alarmed by signs of a political problem closer to home.

They had good reason not to pay too much attention to decorators who had been at work there since the New Year. Pictured: Lulu Lytle’s collection

‘The cost is totally out of control – she’s buying gold wallpaper!’ he is said to have raged to aides.

It is not clear if this was classic Johnson hyperbole – or whether the wallpaper really is gold. In fact, the upmarket interior eco designer Lulu Lytle – whose Soane Britain company was commissioned by Miss Symonds – sells ‘Yellow Gold’ and ‘Old Gold’ wallpaper.

When aides asked him how much it was costing, he said: ‘Tens and tens of thousands – I can’t afford it.’

The Cabinet Office, which is in charge of maintaining the Downing Street estate, told him there was a £30,000-a-year publicly funded allowance for refurbishing the flat.

Mr Johnson would have to pay the rest – £58,000.

‘The cost is totally out of control – she’s buying gold wallpaper!’ he is said to have raged to aides. Pictured: Lulu Lytle’s collection

It led to friction between Miss Symonds and Helen MacNamara, Director General of Propriety and Ethics in the Cabinet Office.

Miss Symonds is said to have urged Mr Johnson to sack Miss MacNamara after she refused to sign off extra money for the flat.

Despite his £150,000-a-year salary as Prime Minister, he is said to struggle to make ends meet as a result of losing an estimated £250,000 a year from his journalistic career as well as an expensive divorce with ex-wife Marina.

By March, Mr Johnson was having to take time out from crisis meetings on the pandemic to deal the issue his advisers called ‘Wallpaper-gate’ – after the 1970s Watergate political scandal in the US that brought down President Richard Nixon.

They started discussing who was going to pay Miss Lytle’s bill – and how.

Tory chairman Ben Elliot, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, is more noted for his political connections than his political achievements.

Like Mr Johnson he is an Old Etonian; he is best friends with another Old Etonian Lord (Zac) Goldsmith – more of whom later – and pals with Miss Symonds.

He is also a nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall.

Unlike famous Conservative chairmen of the past such as Norman Tebbit, Mr Elliot prefers to operate behind the scenes in No10 and Tory HQ.

Which is where he began to grapple with ‘Wallpaper-gate’.

Mr Johnson’s first idea was to ask Tory donor Lord Bamford, boss of the JCB construction giant, to pay off the £58,000.

Lord Bamford and his companies have given more than £10million to the Conservatives over the years – and wife Lady Bamford’s Daylesford farm shops delivered healthy meals to No10 after Mr Johnson recovered from Covid.

The Bamford option was dropped, though it is unclear why.

By early June, it is believed the Cabinet Office had paid the entire bill, including the ‘excess’ £58,000.

But it had to be paid back.

Mr Johnson’s team came up with another wheeze: a ‘blind trust’ modelled on the White House Trust used to maintain the US President’s Office.

Despite his £150,000-a-year salary as Prime Minister, he is said to struggle to make ends meet as a result of losing an estimated £250,000 a year from his journalistic career as well as an expensive divorce with ex-wife Marina

The official aim was to ‘preserve Downing Street for posterity’ including the State Rooms.

In fact, it seems the real aim was to recoup the £58,000.

The advantage of the ‘blind trust’ would be that the prime minister of the day would not know who had given money to the trust so there could be no conflict of interest.

The proposal was soon abandoned as impractical.

Undeterred, Mr Johnson resolved to set up a different, more open, form of Downing Street trust.

Another multi-millionaire Tory donor, Lord Brownlow, was asked by Mr Johnson to set up the new trust.

It emerged yesterday that former Labour Chancellor Lord (Alistair) Darling turned down an offer in July to lead the trust.

So Lord Brownlow took on the job.

It was around this time that Tory HQ paid £58,000 to the Cabinet Office to clear the debt.

But after being told it could fall foul of Electoral Commission rules which say party funds should be used for political campaigning, the party appears to have panicked.An extraordinary apparent attempt to disguise the payment was launched.

This newspaper has been told that in early October Mr Johnson also discussed his financial woes in No10 with Lord Goldsmith.

Miss Symonds’s appointment in January as head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation, a wildlife charity, was a welcome boost to her and Mr Johnson’s income. A leaked email obtained by the Daily Mail showed that on October 23, Lord Brownlow told Mr Elliot that he had made a £58,000 ‘donation’ to Tory HQ.

He made it clear it was to cover the same sum paid by the party to the Cabinet Office.

He added the £58,000 was to be attributed to the ‘soon-to-be-formed Downing Trust’ – headed by Lord Brownlow himself. Six months later the trust is no nearer to being established.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case said this week that it could not be used to pay to refurbish either of the two Downing Street flats at numbers 10 and 11 – either now or in the future.

Bearing in mind that was its real, albeit unstated, purpose all along, insiders say the trust will now be ‘quietly dumped.’ Meanwhile, Downing Street now says the refurbishment costs ‘have been met by the Prime Minister personally’, but has not explained how Mr Johnson paid the £58,000.

It is not clear where he got the money from – nor who he has paid it to.

Miss Lytle? The Cabinet Office? Tory HQ? Lord Brownlow? The money trail is not just murky, it is dizzying. Opposition by Mr Johnson’s former chief of staff Dominic Cummings to using donors to pay for the flat was one of the reasons for his acrimonious exit from Downing Street in December.

But this newspaper has been told that when his successor, ex-banker Dan Rosenfield joined No10 in January, he was similarly shocked.

‘He couldn’t believe anyone had allowed such a crazy arrangement to go ahead in the first place – or that so much time had been spent on trying and failing to sort out the mess,’ said a source.

Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell said yesterday: ‘Prime ministers have to set an example and should abide by the rules which are there for a good reason. He needs to concentrate on issues like Covid and the way to do that is to abide by the rules.’

In his blistering attack last week Mr Cummings said he told Mr Johnson early last year that the funding of flat makeover was ‘unethical, foolish and possibly illegal.’

Whether you think Cummings is a genius or the devil incarnate, it is hard to disagree that Mr Johnson is guilty on at least one of the three counts. 

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