Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds may have to hand over personal emails and phone messages to an official inquiry.
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.
‘We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred,’ announced the watchdog.
It has sweeping powers to demand documents and interview witnesses under caution. Failure to comply or tell the truth is a criminal offence.
Boris Johnson (pictured) and Carrie Symonds may have to hand over personal emails and phone messages to an official inquiry
No serving prime minister has ever been interviewed under caution in relation to an alleged breach of the law.
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 Miss 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’.
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 investigation came as:
- The PM announced that the Queen’s former private secretary Lord Geidt will serve as his new adviser on ministerial standards and will launch an investigation into the flat makeover;
- However, the PM was accused of ‘marking his own homework’ after it emerged Lord Geidt will not be able to instigate probes into breaches of the ministerial code without Mr Johnson’s approval;
- In angry exchanges in the Commons, Mr Johnson denied saying he would rather ‘let the bodies pile high’ than order a third lockdown;
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak raised eyebrows by revealing he had paid the full cost of refurbishing his Downing Street flat from his own pocket;
- Department store John Lewis mocked the PM and Miss Symonds, following claims they ordered the makeover to deal with the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ left behind by Theresa May.
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
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.’
Mr Johnson appeared rattled in the chamber after Sir Keir Starmer accused him of ‘major sleaze’
There was also resentment in some quarters toward Miss 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 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 Miss Symonds (right), who masterminded the costly redecoration, could also face questions
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.