Downing Street fears a Tory paper trail could leave Boris Johnson exposed over the murky funding of his grace-and-favour flat refurbishment, it was claimed today.
The PM and Carrie Symonds face handing over emails and phone messages relating to the controversial makeover for their No11 residence after the elections watchdog dramatically announced an investigation.
They could also be interviewed – along with former chief aide Dominic Cummings – as part of the Electoral Commission probe into whether donations to foot the costs were illegally kept secret.
But although the inquiry is currently targeted at the Conservative Party rather than Mr Johnson himself, concerns have been voiced that its records could lead back to the premier.
‘The worry is that there could be a paper trail,’ a government source told the Times. ‘There was a very limited number of people who knew about the funding arrangements at CCHQ. It’s not clear how this will end.’
In a bombshell move yesterday, the Electoral Commission said it had carried out an initial assessment and was ‘satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred’.
It has sweeping powers to demand documents and interview witnesses under caution. Failure to comply or tell the truth is a criminal offence.
No serving prime minister has ever been interviewed under caution in relation to an alleged breach of the law.
Mr Cummings, who is now in a state of war with Mr Johnson, claimed in a blog last week that he had warned the PM the ‘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’.
He sparked alarm for Mr Johnson’s allies by saying he would be ‘happy’ to tell the Electoral Commission what he knows.
PMs have a £30,000 annual allowance for improvements to their residence, although it can be rolled over to some extent from year to year.
Mr Johnson repeatedly dodged yesterday when asked whether the extra costs of the work – believed to be £58,000 – was initially paid from Tory funds, merely insisting he had now footed the bill.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted the PM had not broken the ministerial code again this morning, adding that he had been ‘advised by officials’ throughout and would follow the conclusions of his newly appointed standards adviser Lord Geidt.
‘The prime minister has answered umpteen questions, including saying that if the Lord Geidt finds that the prime minister needs to make other declarations, he will then make those,’ Mr Zahawi said.
‘But he has throughout this whole process been advised by his officials, and he has clearly paid for the refurbishment.
Boris Johnson (pictured running today) and Carrie Symonds may have to hand over personal emails and phone messages to an official inquiry
The PM and Carrie Symonds face the prospect of handing over emails and phone messages after the elections watchdog dramatically announced an investigation
In a bombshell move, the Electoral Commission yesterday opened a formal investigation into the funding of the lavish refurbishment of the couple’s official flat. Pictured: A design by Lulu Lytle, who is believed to have carried out the refurbishment
The inquiry follows a string of revelations in the Mail suggesting a £58,000 cost overrun may have been paid originally by the Conservative Party before being covered by Tory donor Lord Brownlow.
Mr Johnson angrily told MPs yesterday that he had settled the bill with his own money.
But he ducked repeated questions about who originally paid out when the work at 11, Downing Street was completed last year. Failure to declare donations is an offence under electoral law, punishable by fines of up to £20,000.
The Electoral Commission can pass on investigations to the police if it uncovers evidence of criminal offences or believes its efforts are being frustrated.
Downing Street yesterday said Mr Johnson was willing to co-operate fully with the inquiry, which could demand to see relevant emails and WhatsApp messages. His fiancée Ms Symonds, who masterminded the costly redecoration, could also face questions.
Asked if Mr Johnson was willing to be questioned in person, his press secretary said the commission’s investigation was a matter for the Conservative Party, and the Prime Minister ‘will of course be happy to assist if asked’.
The investigation came as:
They could also be interviewed – along with former chief aide Dominic Cummings (pictured together in 2019) – as part of the Electoral Commission probe into whether donations to foot the costs were illegally kept secret
The inquiry follows a string of revelations in the Mail suggesting a £58,000 cost overrun may have been paid originally by the Conservative Party before being covered by Tory donor Lord Brownlow. Pictured: Lulu Lytle
Labour peer ‘invited to join No10 Trust’
The Tory donor who is thought to have given a loan to Boris Johnson to pay for his flat’s makeover approached a Labour peer to sit on a trust overseeing the work.
Baroness Jay, daughter of former prime minister James Callaghan, said Lord Brownlow asked her to become a member of the proposed Downing Street Trust.
Last night, the baroness said she understood it would be for the public part of the buildings, not the residences. She told BBC Two’s Newsnight: ‘Nothing formal was agreed [but] I did say I’d be interested… on the basis it were similar to the Chequers Trust, of which I used to be a member.’
Tory MPs were aghast at the row, which comes when the Government is facing sleaze allegations over lobbying and procurement deals and only a week from a major round of local elections.
‘It is a stupid self-inflicted wound that makes us look shifty and out of touch,’ one former minister told the Mail.
‘If it had been dealt with straight away then people would have thought nothing of it. But the attempt to cover up what happened looks dodgy.’
Another veteran Tory said: ‘I genuinely think we are in trouble. You can argue that none of the things add up to much on their own. But there is a carelessness and arrogance in No 10 that is very dangerous.’
There was also resentment in some quarters toward Ms Symonds, with the PM’s fiancée dubbed ‘Carrie Antoinette’ on Tory WhatsApp groups over her allegedly expensive tastes.
But there was also anger at the Electoral Commission over the timing of the announcement, which came less than an hour before Mr Johnson was due to answer questions in the Commons.
Mr Johnson appeared rattled in the chamber after Sir Keir Starmer accused him of ‘major sleaze’.
Jabbing his finger at the Labour leader, he said he was ‘playing political games, whereas this party gets on with delivering on the people’s priorities’. He insisted no laws or rules had been broken, adding that he had ‘met the requirements that I have been obliged to meet in full’.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had not received any requests for information from the commission.
But David Howarth, a former commissioner at the elections watchdog, said it was ‘inconceivable’ that his conduct would not be looked at along with that of the Conservative Party.
The Cambridge law professor said: ‘The investigators will look at every single transaction relating to payment for the works on the flat with a view to finding out whether reportable donations have been reported in time. The question is, who paid the bill and was it reported?’
Prime ministers can spend up to £30,000 a year of public money on their private residence. But the makeover bill came in much higher, prompting Mr Johnson to order a search to find someone to pay for the £58,000 excess. He was forced to pay himself – after various parties are all said to have funded the work at some point.
MAIL EXPOSÉS HE CAN’T PAPER OVER
Scoop by scoop, how we uncovered ‘Wallpapergate’ before the rest of Fleet St caught up …as told by SIMON WALTERS, reporter who broke them all
1. Saturday, February 27
The Daily Mail breaks the story of the Downing Street flat makeover scandal. We describe how Carrie Symonds had urged the Prime Minister to sack Cabinet Office director of propriety and ethics Helen MacNamara in a dispute over the bill. On being told he would have to pay for the bulk of the refurbishment, Boris Johnson asked if Tory donors could pay for it instead.
2. Tuesday, March 2
We reveal that Mr Johnson wanted to pay for the refurbishment by creating a charitable trust based on the one used to maintain the White House. But it was to be funded by Tory donors, risking conflicts of interest. Miss Symonds hired upmarket designer Lulu Lytle to carry out the makeover. Miss Lytle charges up to £840 for a roll of wallpaper and £19,950 for a sofa.
3. Wednesday, March 3
The first significant public criticism of the makeover – reportedly inspired by interior designer Lulu Lytle – and plans to fund it via a charitable trust comes from Sir Alistair Graham, former head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He says the proposal was ‘monstrous’ and may be illegal. It is the first sign that the scheme could run into serious trouble.
4. Friday, March 5
We reveal how Mr Johnson feared the final bill could be £200,000 and is angry at our reports, ordering No 10 aides: ‘Don’t talk about the flat!’. The Mail also reveals the identity of wealthy Tory supporters whose names had been discussed in Downing Street as possible donors towards the flat refit. They included Lord Bamford, the boss of construction giant JCB who has given millions to the Tory party. Conservative minister Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, a close friend of Mr Johnson and Miss Symonds, was also mentioned as a possible donor.
5. Saturday, March 6
Despite Tory HQ and No10 stonewalling, we reveal that having been talked out of getting donors to help fund the makeover, Mr Johnson secretly got the Tory party to pay. No10 denies wrongdoing. But Tory HQ is ‘in meltdown’ at the news. Party funds are for political campaigning, not the leader’s furnishings. The party and the PM must declare such donations. Neither did, and the consequences are serious – as they have found.
6. Saturday, March 13
A new name enters the scandal: Low-profile City tycoon and Tory donor Lord Brownlow. We reveal the ex-policeman turned entrepreneur and philanthropist has come to the rescue. And the estimated ‘excess’ amount paid by Lord Brownlow that the Cabinet Office had refused to fund? We reveal it to be £60,000. Mr Johnson was ‘rattled’ by our disclosures.
7. Wednesday, March 17
No 10 is now in full panic mode. Having failed to stop us revealing the truth, it is now considering handing back the £60,000 donation from Lord Brownlow in a bid to cover up all the chicanery. It intends to say it came from the ‘Downing St Trust’, not Lord Brownlow, any other Tory donor or the party.
8. Saturday, March 20
Things get serious. The Electoral Commission confirms it is questioning Tory chiefs over the party’s payments for the flat. The commission wants to know if, as we reported, the party paid £60,000 towards the flat, why neither it nor Mr Johnson declared it – as they have to.
9 Friday, March 26
Enter Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. The Labour Party, lagging behind the Tories in the polls, seizes on the scandal to knock some of the shine off Mr Johnson’s popularity. Labour asks Mr Case to look into ‘eye-watering’ amounts spent on the flat makeover.
10. Wednesday, March 31
Sir Keir Starmer demands an official inquiry. Labour lawyers write to the Electoral Commission accusing the Prime Minister of trying to conceal donations for the flat and asking if the issue warrants criminal proceedings.
11. Wednesday, April 21
The Mail reveals two ‘killer’ emails sent by Lord Brownlow that prove the Tories tried to hide the scandal. An incendiary one, sent in October, told how he gave £58,000 to the Tories to cover the same sum it spent on the flat months earlier.