UK's Johnson faces formal probe over funding of Downing Street apartment renovation

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a stream of allegations.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a stream of allegations.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Britain's electoral commission opened a formal investigation into the financing of the refurbishment of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street apartment, saying there were grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed.

Eight days before local elections across England, as well as the election of the Welsh and Scottish regional assemblies, Mr Johnson is facing a stream of allegations about everything from his muddled initial handling of the Covid-19 crisis to questions about who leaked what from his office.

"We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred," the electoral commission said on Wednesday (April 28).

"We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case."

The commission said it had been in contact with Mr Johnson's Conservative Party over the issue since late March.

The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the commission and whether such funding was reported as required.

Asked last month about the refurbishment, Mr Johnson's spokesman said all donations, gifts and benefits were properly declared, and that no Conservative Party funds were being used to pay for the refurbishment.

Mr Johnson has a taxpayer-funded £30,000 (S$55,000) allowance each year for maintaining and furnishing his official residence, but anything above that is supposed to come out of the Prime Minister's own pocket.

Ministers have said Mr Johnson has paid for the work himself, but it is unclear when he paid, and whether the refurbishment, reported to have cost £200,000 was initially financed by a loan of some kind. Under political financing rules, he would have been required to declare this.

The opposition Labour Party has demanded an explanation.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote to Mr Simon Case, the head of the civil service, asking him to investigate answers about the affair given by Mr Johnson's then press secretary earlier this year. Ms Allegra Stratton, a former BBC journalist, was Mr Johnson's press secretary from October until last week.

Mr Dominic Cummings, who was Mr Johnson's key adviser on the Brexit campaign and helped him to win an election in 2019 before an acrimonious split last year, said last Friday that Mr Johnson had wanted donors to pay for the renovation secretly.

Mr Cummings said he had told the Prime Minister such plans were "unethical, foolish, possibly illegal".

Asked if Mr Johnson had received a loan from the Conservative Party for the refurbishment, transport minister Grant Shapps told Sky News: "The Prime Minister has already paid for it."

In a further damaging allegation, the Daily Mail newspaper on Sunday cited unidentified sources as saying that, in October, shortly after agreeing to a second lockdown, Mr Johnson had told a meeting in Downing Street: "No more f****** lockdowns - let the bodies pile high in their thousands."

Asked on Monday whether he had made the remark, Mr Johnson told broadcasters: "No, but again, I think the important thing, I think, that people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work, and they have."