Former President Donald Trump once boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Impunity makes for arrogance and a blindness to reality, which eventually brings bad leaders down. Johnson appears to have reached Trump-like levels of hubris, with the blindsiding, deflection and outright lies in response to questions into his potential breaches of the ministerial code. He is also involving his ministers and assorted MPs in his party in the cover-ups.
Do not despair. Cracks are appearing. On April 30 the Churchill Project tweeted that Boris Johnson has nine inquiries open on him. “NINE?!” Unfortunately, they were not listed. There are so many investigations into sleaze going on at the moment, it is difficult to say for sure which nine inquiries the Churchill Project had in mind, but here are nine that are worth following:
1. The Mustique Holiday
Almost the first thing Johnson did after being elected in December 2019 was to go on an all-expenses-paid holiday to Mustique in the Caribbean with his then girlfriend Carrie Symonds. That’s when the trouble began. Every politician has to declare donations and benefits-in-kind, because money can make politicians more responsive to benefactors than voters, and that undermines democracy.
The couple returned to the UK engaged, happy to go public that they were expecting a child and facing a storm over who paid for the holiday. For once, Johnson had declared it: naming the donor as Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross. Unfortunately for Johnson, Ross initially denied it, before changing his statement to say he ‘facilitated’ the holiday. Meanwhile, it seems the Mustique Company (the island’s management company) was somehow involved, but Johnson has not made any declaration with reference to that at all.
Shadow Cabinet Office Secretary Jon Trickett wrote to the parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Stone OBE, who initiated a probe in March 2020 — the first time a sitting PM has faced such an inquiry – but not the first time she had had to investigate Boris Johnson.
If a serious breach of the rules is uncovered, or Ms Stone’s investigation identifies an issue of wider concern, a report will be forwarded to the committee on standards and a potential penalty considered. For reference, when Ian Paisley junior was found to have broken rules about declaring all-expenses-paid holidays to Sri Lanka, he was suspended from parliament for 30 sitting days. As his sanction was greater than suspension for 10 sitting days, he was then subject to a recall petition.
Boris Johnson is already on his last warning. He has been the subject of two recent investigations by the parliamentary standards committee (PSC) into his failure to declare interests in a timely manner: the first into failure to declare his 20 per cent ownership of a Somerset property, the second into undeclared book royalties. In the second report, the PSC wrote that he had demonstrated “an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House”.
In Paisley’s case he compounded his failure to declare benefits-in-kind by writing to then PM David Cameron in support of the Sri Lankan government’s position on a proposed UN resolution As a result he was found guilty of paid advocacy as well as not declaring interests. Unless Johnson rewarded whoever paid for his holiday with a public contract or some other honour, this dimension will be missing from his case.
2. Public funds for his then mistress Jennifer Arcuri
The office of Mayor of London is also bound by the ministerial code. Jennifer Arcuri recently revealed that she was indeed Johnson’s mistress from 2012 to 2016. The Greater London Authority (GLA), which is responsible for the mayor’s office, has launched an inquiry into whether Johnson breached its principles while on the job. The inquiry is in respect of grants of public money worth £126,000 given to his American lover, as well as the source of £700,000 loans to her company and Johnson’s personal intervention to allow her to attend three foreign trade missions when officials had ruled that she was ineligible.
You may think this is ancient history and no longer relevant. Unfortunately, Johnson compounded the issue by repeatedly lying about it while PM, most recently on 21 April. When asked whether he had acted with integrity in relation to the matter by Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post, Johnson begrudgingly admitted to the affair, if not the impropriety. He then walked off the podium of his new £2.6 million broadcast room (into which, surprisingly, there is no inquiry — yet), cancelled the planned White House-style press briefings, and fired his press secretary Allegra Stratton.
If the GLA finds against Johnson, then there could be a further inquiry into Johnson breaching the ministerial code by lying about the nature of his relationship with Ms Arcuri while PM. Note that former Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigned after being found to breach the ministerial code by taking his friend Adam Werrity along on trips.
3. Chatty Rat
There has been an ongoing internal investigation by the Cabinet Office into leaks by an unknown person at Downing Street (dubbed ‘Chatty Rat’) about the second lockdown. The leaks effectively bounced Johnson into following through a second lockdown when he was dead set against it.
Why is this being included? Surely it is not an investigation into Johnson himself? Initially, no. Then two things happened that turned this inquiry into a circular firing squad. The first was that Johnson took time out of his busy day to personally phone three national newspapers and accuse his former top aide Dominic Cummings of leaking the Dyson texts (see number four below) and of being the Chatty Rat.
Cummings, not one to take a false accusation lying down, wrote an incendiary blogpost in which he denied being said rodent. He claimed that he could prove that both he and Lee Cain, erstwhile Number 10 Comms Director, had been exonerated by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. Instead, Cummings fingered another aide, Henry Newman, who just happens to be Carrie Symonds’ best friend. This was followed by the leak of the “Let the bodies pile high” comment to the Daily Mail, ITV journalist Robert Peston and BBC presenter Laura Kuenssberg by a variety of unnamed sources, some of whom are ready to swear to it in a court of law, if necessary. The whole sorry saga was topped off by Simon Case admitting to a parliamentary select committee that Chatty Rat may never be found.
The second incident was the revelation that Boris Johnson’s phone number has not been changed for years and, worse still, has been publicly available on the internet (if you know where to look) since 2006. It had appeared on the press release of a think tank’s event and was still freely available until celebrity gossip site Popbitch drew it to the public’s attention. Tory ministers like Victoria Atkins wheeled out the old “nothing to see here, move on” and, less plausibly, “the PM knows his responsibilities when it comes to national security”.
Really? This is the man who as Foreign Secretary was considered such a security risk that Theresa May could not share full intelligence with him. Hostile actors could have been snooping on him for years. No wonder Case has given up on trying to track down Chatty Rat. It could be Johnson himself, inadvertently or otherwise.
4. The Dyson Texts
This is a peculiar one. Texts between the PM and Singapore-based billionaire British inventor James Dyson were leaked to Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC. In them, Johnson promised to act beyond his powers — ultra vires for fans of Latin — to fix tax issues for Dyson who wanted to have a go at Matt Hancock’s ventilator challenge. (How the government handled that particular piece of the Covid19 response will be the subject of another West Country Bylines article, as it is not at all straightforward, or remotely like the rosy picture the government is trying to paint.)
Initially there was to be no probe into the leak, raising suspicions that it was Johnson himself who was the source. After all, Kuenssberg is a known ally. The next day Number 10 did a U-turn and a Cabinet Office inquiry was announced. However, before it could get underway, Johnson was on the phone to national newspapers, accusing Cummings of the leak, with the consequences already discussed in item number three above.
Funny. I always thought the accused was named after an investigation and that they were innocent until proven guilty. What on earth was Johnson playing at? Why isn’t more attention being given to his practice of lobbing (false?) accusations at Cummings and starting a private war that will play out in public?
As part of the inquiry, Downing Street undertook to publish correspondence between Johnson and Dyson, but who knows if that will happen now? It emerged that Dyson employees had emailed a screenshot of the Dyson-PM chat saying “I am the first Lord of the Treasury” to various people in the Treasury to back up their demands for assistance. Then came the bombshell that Johnson’s number was on the internet and freely available to anyone who wanted to hack it and have a snoop. The leaker could be literally anyone in the world with the necessary skills.
5. Refurbishment of Number 11 Downing Street (Electoral Commission)
A formal investigation into the involvement of the Conservative Party in the funding of the refurbishments to Johnson’s Downing Street flat has been launched by the Electoral Commission (EC). Announcing the inquiry on 27 April the EC said, “We have been in contact with the Conservative Party since late March and have conducted an assessment of the information they have provided. We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred. We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case.”
That must be doubly the case now that a second, and possibly third, donor has emerged. The Mirror broke the news that William and Kate Hobhouse, who have been generous donors to both the Conservative Party and Vote Leave, donated the cost of the £840-a-roll gold wallpaper, estimated at £14,000 in total. Oddly, they both resigned as directors of Soane Britain, Lulu Lytle’s interior design company which undertook the refurbishment for Carrie Symonds, two days after the news of ‘WallpaperGate’ broke.
While there has been much focus on the £58,000 provided by Lord Brownlow, The Times has unearthed a second donor who allegedly settled another invoice directly with the company. It is not clear whether this second donor and the Hobhouses are the same, but it explains the gap between the £30,000 taxpayer grant plus the Brownlow £58,000 and the £200,000 the refurbishment is said to have cost.
None of these donations have been declared, which is of course a breach of electoral rules. That will be the focal point of the EC’s investigation, but questions will remain. What have these donors been given, or promised, in return? Have their interests been put above those of the electorate? The maximum penalty will be a £20,000 fine, but if illegality has occurred, then the EC can refer the case to the police.
Note this is not an investigation into Johnson himself — yet. The Labour Party has requested that the EC widen the scope of its investigation to include him. With this weekend’s revelations — especially of a donor complaining to his local Tory MP that he was approached to fund a nanny for Johnson’s one-year-old son Wilf — Labour’s request may be difficult to reject.
6. Refurbishment of N°11 Downing Street (Cabinet Office)
Cabinet secretary Simon Case is now heading up a third inquiry into Johnson. This one is also concerned with who paid what for whom and when in Carrie Symonds’ Downing Street flat refurbishment project. Poor Simon. How his case-load is mounting. (Sorry).
The story now goes that, despite all the millions Johnson has earned in his lifetime as one of the UK’s highest paid journalists, last year he was either unwilling or considered himself too skint to pay for his partner’s extravagant refurbishment of their grace and favour flat. Bear in mind they share a house in Camberwell; Johnson still owns yet another in Oxfordshire with his ex-wife Marina Wheeler and has a 20 per cent interest in that Johnson family property in Somerset. He also has the use of the Chevening Country Estate in Kent and Chequers in Buckinghamshire whenever he likes. ‘Skint’ is, therefore, a relative concept.
Initially the Cabinet Office paid a £58,000 invoice, then the Party refunded it, until eventually a donor (Lord Brownlow) was found to cover it. Johnson has now reportedly taken out a commercial loan to pay the £58,000 back, since it has been made public. Timing is everything. Gifts, donations and loans have to be declared within 28 days. This has not happened.
It will be interesting to see what flavour of fudge the Cabinet Office comes up with, but it is almost without consequence. Any report will be referred to the PM’s advisor on ministerial standards…
7. Refurbishment of N°11 Downing Street (Advisor on Ministerial Standards)
Lord Christopher Geidt, former private secretary to the Queen and the newly appointed adviser on ministerial standards, announced on April 28 that he, too, would begin his own investigation into the payments for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.
He must have the permission of the Prime Minister to do so, for one of the weaknesses of his position is that he may not instigate investigations of his own volition. He may suggest them, privately and in confidence, to the PM, but he must wait until he is tasked to act.
Furthermore, should he find a breach of the ministerial code, there is no guarantee that his report will be made public and, in true North Korean fashion, the PM will retain the power to quash probes and to exonerate himself and ministers. How can the public possibly have confidence in such a Mickey Mouse system as that?
The abuse of this biased system is the reason there was a five-month vacancy for Lord Geidt’s post in the first place. The former occupant, Sir Alex Allan, resigned after Johnson exonerated Priti Patel following a report Allan had compiled finding that Patel’s approach “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying” and that she had “not consistently met the high standards expected of her”. The taxpayer later had to pay out £340,000 in an out-of-court settlement to one of Patel’s victims.
8. Johnson’s decision to ignore Priti Patel’s bullying
The FDA, the union of civil servants, has won the right to a review of Boris Johnson’s decision to keep Priti Patel in post, despite her being found to be a bully. This is a momentous decision. If the FDA wins, then for the first time some of the PM’s conduct may be open to scrutiny under employment law, just as if he were any other kind of boss. In turn, that would be likely to raise a constitutional question for the Supreme Court, which could be asked to redefine the boundary between politics and the law.
One to watch. Boris Johnson, who behaves like an absolute monarch, will not enjoy having to rein in his whims to conform to employment law. It is precisely because of cases like this, and the Supreme Court finding his excessively long prorogation of parliament for an improper purpose to be illegal, that Johnson hates the courts and wants to limit the right to judicial review.
9. Open Democracy’s court case
Open Democracy is taking legal action over the Cabinet Office’s ‘Orwellian’ secret Clearing House that vets ‘Freedom of Information (FoI)’ requests. The action will also challenge potential breaches of data protection laws. The Clearing House sits within former journalist and now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove’s department. FoI requests are supposed to be applicant-blind, but it appears Gove’s unit has been sharing information about journalists across Whitehall to warn off other departments from cooperating with those whom the government considers to be ‘too probing’. Some journalists have even complained of being on a ‘black list’.
Under Tory rule, the percentage of FoI requests granted has fallen from 62 per cent in 2010 to 44 per cent in 2019. One member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, John McDonnell, said “The weaknesses and undermining of the FOI system prevent the necessary sunlight being shone on government decision-making and is critical to upholding democratic accountability.”
Here again, this is not an inquiry into Boris Johnson per se, but it goes to the root of Johnson’s preference for secretive, authoritarian, rule-breaking governance, and is a supreme irony given that both he and Gove are former journalists.
To all fans of Boris Johnson, I invite you to remove his name from this article, and insert that of a politician you absolutely loathe. Now, if that alternative, hated politician were to do the things detailed in this article, what would you think? Be honest with yourself. Would you not declare him or her to be unfit to serve as prime minister of this great country?
If you are reading this before casting your vote on May 6th, please consider NOT voting Tory to send a message that enough is enough and you are not prepared to turn a blind eye to cronyism, corruption and sleaze any more. Johnson may have a sketchy grasp of truth, integrity and probity but he will understand the message from the ballot box. Let’s make it plain: we deserve better.