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.