Drip, drip, drip. The Boris Johnson sleaze bucket keeps on filling up, as the leaks continue their relentless progress. The latest plip-plopping sound is the revelation that the PM was given a loan by the Tory party to pay the initial bills for the renovation of his and partner Carrie’s flat in Downing Street.
It seems as if No.10 is almost complicit in the drip-feed of information that keeps this water torture of a story running. On Tuesday, a political spokesperson (separate from the civil service’s official spokesperson) issued this update: “Any costs of wider refurbishment this year beyond those provided for by the annual allowance have been met by the prime minister personally. Conservative party funds are not being used for this.”
The statement prompted yet more eye-rolls within and without the party, as it signally failed to deny the central claim that Conservative Party Campaigns Headquarters had indeed directed a loan to Johnson. Yes, he may eventually have paid the bill himself, but only after he was caught (and suspicions were hardly eased when he smuggled out that fact on Friday evening). Every other day, No.10 has an iteration, rather than a full and frank explanation.
It’s still unclear who actually donated the money to the party, and for what precise purpose. Exactly why the PM, who earns a salary of £161,000, is so short of cash will baffle many of the public. His messy divorce, the costs of his children’s private education and the loss of his £250,000 Telegraph column (which he once joked was “chickenfeed”) may not earn public sympathy either.
But given that his whole approach to life is “act now, think later”, it seems that Johnson went ahead with his expensive new wallpaper and furnishings without nailing down the tricky business of who was paying the bill. It also appears that some chatter about a charitable trust vehicle got bogged down, not least as cabinet secretary Simon Case pointed out yesterday, because such trusts are normally for renovations of parts of a building open to visitors and not for private rooms.
In PMQs, Keir Starmer may prefer to focus on Johnson’s crass line that he would rather “pile up the bodies” or let Covid “rip” (an allegation No.10 failed to deny) than impose a third lockdown. Yet with the Downing Street refurb coming up unprompted on the doorsteps of Hartlepool, the Labour leader may well also ask, in true Mrs Merton style: just what did the millionaire Tory donor think they would get in return for rescuing the PM from the social hell of Theresa May’s John Lewis furnishings?
The suspicion of owing someone a favour is, after all, precisely why we have a register of donations and interests in the first place. Yet we are still waiting for the latest register of ministerial interests, and Labour suspects the delay is to avoid the May 6 local elections. No.10 came up with the latest lame excuse on Tuesday: it hasn’t yet appointed an independent adviser on ministerial interests and that adviser’s remit includes publishing the list.
Of course, the reason no adviser is in post is because Sir Alex Allan quit in exasperation at the PM’s failure to uphold his finding that Priti Patel’s bullying of staff breached the ministerial code. That particular narrative is not yet over, as the FDA civil service union has succeeded in getting permission to launch a judicial review of the prime minister’s decision. It could be a hell of a court case.
George Osborne used to claim that Labour failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining on the public finances. As the No.10 flat fiasco suggests, the problem for the PM is his innately chaotic personal and political life was always going to leave some gaping holes in his own finances. The wider issue of his failure to uphold standards in public life was perhaps just as inevitable, given the gaping holes in his morality. And that’s much harder to fix than a flat in need of a refurb.