Behind the scenes

Cash for curtains: will No. 10 refurb inquiry end up costing PM?

Pundits say Electoral Commission probe may have ‘serious consequences’ for Boris Johnson

The Conservatives are facing an Electoral Commission inquiry over allegations that a donor originally paid for renovations to Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat.

The political finances watchdog has said that the party’s compliance with laws on donations will be assessed because “there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

The inquiry has the potential “to imperil Boris Johnson’s premiership”, The Guardian warned following yesterday’s announcement, as the so-called “cash for curtains” row “rapidly engulfed” the prime minister.

Who could be quizzed?

The commission has the power to call witnesses, including Johnson, who has insisted that he covered the refurbishment costs himself. He has not, however, denied reports about an initial donation or loan of £58,000 that allegedly came from Conservative peer and party donor David Brownlow.

Under the watchdog’s rules, any loan of more than £7,500 must be declared, but there does not appear to be a record of the original payment.

Dominic Cummings is another potential witness, after the former No. 10 adviser claimed in a blog post last week that the alleged 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”.

Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds, “who masterminded the costly redecoration”, could also face questions, says the Daily Mail. The newspaper has previously reported that the PM complained to aides that Symonds’ wallpaper was “costing tens and tens of thousands… I cannot afford it”, while a visitor recalled her desperation to get rid of Theresa May’s “John Lewis nightmare”.

“Miss Symonds commissioned top-end interior designers Soane Britain, run by darling of the fashionable set Lulu Lytle, to give the place a revamp,” reports The Telegraph, which notes that Lytle’s “Dianthus wallpaper costs £840 per roll”.

Who else is investigating?

Downing Street’s new adviser on ministerial standards, Christopher Geidt, said yesterday that he would launch his own investigation into the refurbishment payments.

But Labour has accused Johnson of being allowed to “mark his own homework”, with the opposition pointing out that the PM would have the power to quash the investigation, exonerating himself and colleagues if necessary, reports the BBC.

Another review by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case ordered by Johnson has met with similar scorn.

So will the Electoral Commission probe be any different?

The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot says the inquiry could “very well have serious consequences for the prime minister and many of his most high-profile advisers”. 

The watchdog could issue a fine of up to £20,000 if it concludes that a mistake has been made, but the most serious outcome would be a referral to the police for a suspected criminal offence. At the moment, the investigation is focused on the Tory party rather than Johnson as an individual, so it is not a given that the prime minister would be held personally accountable.

Ailbhe Rea in the New Statesman thinks a “large part” of what happens to Johnson will come down to the results of the local elections next week. “The Conservative Party’s relationship with Johnson has always been transactional: they put up with scandals, he wins them elections,” she says.

With “no personal loyalties to Johnson among parliamentary colleagues”, says Rea, it “boils down to whether his party continues to find him a winner, or whether the latest saga is a scandal too far”.

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