In an interview with Trevor Phillips on Sky News this week, George Eustice defended Boris Johnson’s handling of the Owen Paterson case saying: “I think what we’ve seen is a sort of Westminster storm in a teacup, if I may say so.” As the polls are seeming to suggest, he could not have been more wrong. Ipsos Mori’s November Political Monitor showed a Labour lead for the first time since November 2020.
What is potentially more worrying for Johnson though, is that the Conservatives are losing the highest proportion of their 2019 voters yet, with 9% going directly to Labour. Numerous scandals that have previously seemed to merely slide off Johnson are now stacking up against him.
In recent weeks alone we’ve been shocked by the Paterson case, the Prime Minister’s free holiday to Marbella, and now ‘Cash-for-Peerages’. A Sunday Times investigation found that all 16 Conservative Party benefactors who have taken on the temporary role of party treasurer and donated more than £3 million to the Party in the past two decades have been offered a peerage. It was partly sleaze that defeated John Major in 1997 and the Conservatives are rightly concerned that they are headed the same way.
Now Labour has heeded Dominic Cumming’s advice to demand another inquiry into the refurbishment of Downing Street. A surprisingly good move from the Labour leader that Cummings refers to as “dud”. Like the case that forced Nixon into resigning in 1974, to answer the ‘Wallpapergate’ question, you must follow the money.
Although PMs commonly refurbish their flat, and can claim £30,000 annually to do so, Mr and Mrs Johnson spent vastly more than this. Nothing wrong with that in itself: David and Samantha Cameron spent much more than the annual allowance when they moved into Downing Street and paid the difference themselves. However, Cummings revealed in a blog post that Johnson had told him of “plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation.” He claims to have warned the PM that this “almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.
It is still not known whether the excess was paid for by Johnson himself or Lord Brownlow via a donation to the Party, with the latter bringing into question multiple funding discrepancies. The Electoral Commission has since investigated whether Brownlow’s donation was properly declared by the Conservatives, considering whether several offences have been committed. Their report is now awaiting comment from the Conservatives. Separately, the independent advisor on ministerial standards, Lord Geidt, concluded that although Johnson had acted “unwisely”, he had not broken the ministerial code.
The everlasting threat that is Cummings, or ‘Nuclear Dom’, wasn’t satisfied with silence on the matter though, given it was a key factor behind him leaving Downing Street. He pleaded for Labour to demand the Electoral Commission interview those in No10 with “knowledge of [the] PM’s illegal donations, incl the infamous wallpaper whatsapp group”, suggesting that neither the Electoral Commission nor Lord Geidt had interviewed any of those with knowledge of the potentially suspect donations. There is nothing Cummings would like more than revenge over his former boss and vindication in the process.
Downing Street is said to be very worried about what may emerge from any investigation, and given everything that has happened in politics recently, this is no surprise. No10 argues that the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, should not investigate the issue further as it is connected to Johnson’s role as PM and therefore comes under separate ministerial code. But there is no love lost there – No10 just tried to scrap the standards watchdog and replace it with their own. Cummings claims that this was a warning shot to Stone to not investigate the renovations further. Maybe she should.