Johnson faces formal probe over funding of apartment renovation

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he campaigns in Llandudno, north Wales on April 26, 2021, ahead of the May 6 Welsh elections. (PHIL NOBLE / POOL / AFP)

Britain's Electoral Commission has opened an investigation into the financing of the refurbishment of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's apartment, saying there were grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed.

Eight days before local elections across England and for the election of the Welsh and Scottish regional assemblies, 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.

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 of the financing of the apartment above Number 11 Downing Street where Johnson resides.

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

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

If it finds that an offence has occurred, and that there is sufficient evidence, then the commission can issue a fine or refer the matter to the police.

Asked who paid the initial invoices for the refurbishment, Johnson said he had covered the costs and he had conformed in full with the code of conduct and ministerial code.

"The answer is I have covered the costs," said Johnson under questioning in parliament from opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who cast Johnson as "Major Sleaze".

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

Johnson has a taxpayer-funded 30,000 pound (US$42,000) allowance each year for maintaining and furnishing his official residence, but anything above that must be met by the prime minister.

Critics say that if the funds had come originally from a Conservative Party supporter, this would raise the question of influence-peddling

Ministers have said Johnson has paid for the work himself, but it is unclear when he paid, and whether the refurbishment, reported to have cost 200,000 pounds (US$280,000) was initially financed by a loan of some kind. Under political financing rules, Johnson would have been required to declare this.

Critics say that if the funds had come originally from a Conservative Party supporter, this would raise the question of influence-peddling.

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Johnson was asked in parliament if the refurbishment was financed by Conservative Party donor David Brownlow.

"The answer is that I have covered the cost," Johnson said.

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

Cummings said he had told the prime minister such plans were "unethical, foolish, possibly illegal".

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

Asked in parliament if he had used those works, Johnson repeatedly denied that he had.

"No," Johnson said. "I didn't say those words."