Pressure mounts on British PM Johnson over apartment refit before local elections

Mr Boris Johnson has insisted that he covered the costs of works done at his official residence at Downing Street himself. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Pressure mounted on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the ruling Conservative Party's polling lead shrank ahead of local elections, and the leader of the Scottish Tories said Mr Johnson should quit if he is found to have broken rules over the funding of refurbishments to his apartment.

Mr Johnson is under investigation over who paid for the works to his official residence at 11 Downing Street and when, and whether the payments were properly declared. He has insisted there has been no wrongdoing and that he bore the costs himself.

But weeks of negative coverage from the UK media over "sleaze" allegations tied to the flat refurbishment culminated last week in the launch of three probes.

Polls in the weekend papers suggested that this has dented the Tory Party's popularity, and on Sunday (May 2), Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross told BBC News that "of course" Mr Johnson should resign if he is found to have broken the Ministerial Code.

"People should expect the highest standards of those in the highest office of the land," Mr Ross told the BBC. "It's right that we look to have serious questions answered."

The comments pile more pressure on the Prime Minister, who has repeatedly refused to say whether he took an undeclared loan from a political donor to cover the refitting costs.

Rules don't apply

"It's appalling that we are in a situation where he won't come clean about who lent him money or gave him money and what favours or promises may have been given in return," Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy told Sky News.

"This is a prime minister who frankly thinks that the rules don't apply to him."

Mr Johnson has called the story a "farrago of nonsense", and during heated exchanges in the House of Commons on Wednesday denied any rules were broken. He was asked three times by opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer to say who initially had covered the costs, but declined to answer.

The Electoral Commission, which regulates political donations, announced a probe into the refurbishment last week, saying "there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred".

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Mr Christopher Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers' interests, are also investigating.

The Electoral Commission's probe is into the Tory Party's actions, though it does have powers to request evidence from Mr Johnson. Mr Case's work will feed into Mr Geidt's investigation, but the Prime Minister himself is the ultimate arbiter of whether to accept his findings. As such, Labour is pushing for a fourth investigation, by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the House of Commons Kathryn Stone, into Mr Johnson's personal conduct.

Polls mixed

Mr Johnson has "been neither open, honest or accountable and all the inquiries that are currently taking place on this issue, they don't go to the heart of the matter", Ms Margaret Hodge, the veteran Labour MP who is calling for the probe, told Sky News on Sunday.

Mr Johnson appeared to be riding out the storm, with polls as recently as last week giving the Tories a double-digit lead over Labour ahead of local and mayoral elections on May 6.

But an Opinium poll for the Observer on Sunday showed the Tory lead over Labour has narrowed to 5 percentage points from 11 over the past week.

A Focaldata poll published by the Times gave the Tories a national lead of just 1 percentage point, and put Labour ahead by a point in a survey of voting intentions in 43 "Red Wall" seats that were traditionally Labour but were won by the Tories in the 2019 general election.

And a survey of party members for the ConservativeHome website found Mr Johnson's net approval rating had dropped by 27 points in a month.

Even so, another poll for the Sunday Telegraph projected the Tories would take power in an additional 13 councils, while Labour would win six that it did not previously control.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News on Sunday that voters have not brought up the issue of the Prime Minister's flat.

"I've been out campaigning in the local elections," he said. "Genuinely, no one has asked me about this."

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