Boris Johnson was today dramatically cleared of breaking Commons rules over a £15,000 Mustique ‘freebie’ with Carrie – despite the sleaze watchdog condemning his behaviour and the ‘unusual’ arrangements.
The cross-party standards committee found the PM had made an ‘accurate and complete’ declaration about the holiday in December 2019, saying it was a donation from Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross even though the couple did not stay in his villa.
However, the committee – chaired by Labour MP Chris Bryant – had to overrule standards commissioner Kathryn Stone. She had concluded that Mr Johnson did breach the Code of Conduct during a 15-month wrangle after initially failing to provide a full explanation, slamming him for ‘not showing the accountability required of those in public life’.
The report also suggested that the premier himself did not know exactly how the jaunt was being funded until after he arrived on Mustique and realised he was not staying in Mr Ross’s own property.
Boris Johnson was today dramatically cleared of breaking Commons rules over a £15,000 Mustique ‘freebie’ with Carrie (pictured together at Wembley last night)
The villa on Mustique where the pair are believed to have stayed in December 2019
Boris Johnson declared the holiday accommodation on Mustique was a donation from Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross
The row over Mr Johnson’s holiday from Boxing Day 2019 to January 5, 2020 started after he declared the £15,000 cost was a ‘benefit in kind’ from Mr Ross.
Mr Ross initially denied having paid for it, and it appears there was a complicated villa swap arrangement that meant Mr Johnson ended up staying in a different property owned by an American family.
The watchdog and the Prime Minister have been locked in a behind-the-scenes battle over whether he obeyed Commons rules whereby MPs must reveal details of all financial donations and benefits.
Mr Johnson funded other aspects of the holiday apart from the accommodation, according to the report.
The committee said: ‘Mr Johnson himself has stated that the arrangement for this holiday were ”unusual”.
‘By Mr Johnson’s and Mr Ross’s own admission, the arrangements for funding Mr Johnson’s holiday accommodation were ad hoc and informal, and do not appear to have been fully explained to Mr Johnson at the outset.
‘Mr Johnson initially agreed to a straightforward arrangement, but when it became apparent, within several days of his arrival, that he was not staying in Mr Ross’s villa, the arrangements became more opaque.
‘It is unsatisfactory that neither Mr Ross nor Mr Johnson explained the arrangements to the Commissioner until last autumn and that Mr Ross only provided minimal information on the arrangement this Spring and in response to our own enquiries.’
The report added: ‘This matter could have been concluded many months ago if more strenuous efforts had been made to dispel the uncertainty.
‘Given that Mr Johnson was twice reprimanded by our predecessor Committee in the last Parliament in the space of four months for ‘an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House’, we would have expected him to have gone the extra mile to ensure there was no uncertainty about the arrangements.’
The Commissioner initially found Mr Johnson in breach of paragraph 14 of the Code because he did not ‘make sufficient inquiries to establish the full facts about the funding arrangements for his free accommodation, either before his holiday, as he should have done, or in 2020’.
Ms Stone said the PM should have uncovered ‘definitively who was to fund the free accommodation he had been offered, and what arrangements had been made to pay for it’ before accepting the accommodation.
‘I also find that Mr Johnson has not shown the accountability required of those in public life,’ she added.
In a brutal memorandum to the committee, Ms Stone wrote: ‘I accept that Mr Johnson had originally expected that the villa would be owned by Mr Ross.
‘I find it surprising that, when he realised that he was to stay elsewhere, Mr Johnson did not establish the full facts about who was the owner of the villa, how the villa would be funded and the value of the benefit, before accepting the accommodation as a gift.
‘Mr Johnson has told me that he believes the owners received a payment for his use of the accommodation.
‘At another point he told me that Mr Ross arranged to meet the ‘notional costs’ by making his own villa available to the Mustique Company on future dates. He has not explained how these two accounts relate to each other.’
She went on: ‘The rules require Members to fulfil ‘conscientiously’ the requirement of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
‘Because he did not make sufficient inquiries to establish the full facts about the funding arrangements for his free accommodation, either before his holiday, as he should have done, or in 2020, I find that Mr Johnson has not fulfilled conscientiously the House’s requirements for registration.’
In a clear hint that she wanted a more severe punishment than a rap on the knuckles, Ms Stone pointed out that Mr Johnson had ‘breached the registration rules on three previous occasions’.
‘He has been referred to the Committee on Standards on two of these, in 2017–19.
‘On the last occasion the Committee said, ‘Should we conclude in future that Mr Johnson has committed any further breaches of the rules on registration, we will regard this as a matter which may call for more serious sanction’.
‘I therefore refer this matter to the Committee on Standards for their consideration.’
Doubts had been raised about whether the true cost of the villa would have been higher, but Ms Stone found ‘no reason to dispute’ the £15,000 valuation.
In his response to the committee, Mr Johnson insisted he did not accept he had broken the code.
‘I emphasise that when taking steps to enter information on the Register, I acted in good faith and after obtaining advice. I understand that this has never been disputed,’ he wrote.
‘My office sought and received advice from both the Registrar and the Cabinet Office’s Propriety & Ethics team.
‘Furthermore, it has never been suggested that the information I initially provided to the Registrar was itself inaccurate in any respect.’
He added: ‘I have some difficulty in understanding how the Commissioner has found such a breach in circumstances where it is not said that the entry in the Register is in fact inaccurate or incomplete.
‘If the entry is not inaccurate or incomplete, there would be no relevant facts remaining to be ascertained and recorded in the Register.’
Mr Johnson has previously been in hot water with the committee – and Ms Stone.
In 2018, before he became Prime Minister, he made a ‘full and unreserved’ apology to MPs for failing to declare more than £50,000 in income and registering nine payments after the required 28-day deadline.
Ms Stone said the breaches were ‘neither inadvertent nor minor’.
Some Tory MPs had feared that if Mr Johnson was found to have broken the rules again the committee would have recommended his suspension from the Commons, the first prime minister to endure such a humiliation.