UK PM’s ‘cash for curtains’ crisis pulls open funding questions

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, holds a cup of coffee as he speaks with pupils after taking part in a science lesson at King Solomon Academy in London, on April 29, 2021. — AFP pic
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, holds a cup of coffee as he speaks with pupils after taking part in a science lesson at King Solomon Academy in London, on April 29, 2021. — AFP pic

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LONDON, April 29 — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds are facing questions over their expensive taste in home decor. But how did “wallpaper-gate” spread into a political scandal that could yet involve the police?

How did it start?

Johnson, Symonds and their baby son live in quarters above Number 11 Downing Street, which are more spacious than those attached to Number 10, where the prime minister’s offices are located.

Most of the historic estate is maintained with public money, but every prime minister gets an annual allowance of £30,000 to redecorate the living space.

It’s been known for months that Johnson and Symonds were busy on a luxury makeover, but questions have mounted over who was footing the bill — reportedly as high as £200,000 — in an affair known variously as “wallpaper-gate” or “cash for curtains”.

The return of Cummings

In an incendiary blog post last week, Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings wrote that he had warned Johnson against plans to use party funds to “secretly pay” for the renovation in an “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal” way.

It was the first time the leading Brexiteer had returned to the public eye since a Downing Street feud last year involving Symonds, who is herself a Conservative Party insider.

Johnson insists he has himself covered costs of the refurbishment exceeding the £30,000 allowance.

But during a stormy session of questions in parliament yesterday, he repeatedly refused to clarify where the money came from initially.

Follow the money

Britain’s top-ranking civil servant Simon Case revealed on Monday that during the height of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Johnson instructed staff to look into setting up a White House-style charitable trust for Downing Street.

Conservative Party donor David Brownlow was designated as chairman.

In a leaked email from last October, Brownlow confirmed that he had paid £58,000 into party coffers, “to cover the payments the party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed ‘Downing Street trust’”.

Although it could be seen as a political donation, the payment was never declared to the Electoral Commission.

The watchdog, which regulates party and election finance, on Wednesday launched a formal investigation after finding “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

The commission has powers to demand the repayment of questionable donations and levy fines — or ultimately refer investigations to the police for criminal prosecution.

Two internal probes are also underway, one led by cabinet secretary Case and the other by Johnson’s newly appointed adviser on ministerial standards, Christopher Geidt.

Why does it matter?

Aside from any breaches of the law on political donations, opposition parties have seized on the affair to burnish their portrayal of Johnson as a sleazy, untruthful leader in the build-up to local elections on May 6.

Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives are still ahead of Labour and other opposition parties heading into the polls, the first since the pandemic and since Brexit took full effect.

Labour has hammered home that no fewer than three investigations are now ongoing into the Downing Street revamp — although there is still no official inquiry into why Britain has suffered one of the world’s worst death tolls from Covid-19.

During a stormy exchange in the House of Commons Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer pointed out to Johnson that ministers who knowingly mislead parliament are expected to resign.

Geidt is expected to publish a new register of ministers’ financial interests, which Downing Street says will cover details of the refurbishment.

But it says Johnson himself will remain the “ultimate arbiter” of whether the ministerial code has been broken — even if he himself is the target of the investigation.

What’s wrong with John Lewis?

Johnson and Symonds reportedly called the decor they inherited from former prime minister Theresa May a “John Lewis furniture nightmare”.

For many Britons, the upmarket department store chain is aspirational, rather than something to be sneered at.

But the prime ministerial couple set their sights higher and turned to fashionable interior designer Lulu Lytle, whose company Soane offers bespoke furniture, fabrics and wallpaper at eye-watering prices.

John Lewis meanwhile has been having fun over the saga.

After Johnson and Starmer clashed in the House of Commons, the retailer tweeted: “Time for an interiors refresh? We pride our Home Design Service on having something for *almost* everyone.” — AFP

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