Boris Johnson attempt to rewrite sleaze rules ‘designed to avoid flat inquiry’

Standards commissioner yet to decide whether to launch probe

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 05 November 2021 13:43
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Tory minister says he didn't read the standards committee report on Owen Paterson

Boris Johnson has been accused of launching his abortive bid to rewrite the rulebook on parliamentary standards in order to fend off a potential sleaze inquiry into the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge told The Independent that the “only logical explanation” for the PM’s politically disastrous decision to try to save Owen Paterson from sanction for paid lobbying was that he was concerned about possible investigations by standards commissioner Kathryn Stone into his own behaviour and that of other leading Tories.

In a letter to Dame Margaret - seen by The Independent - Ms Stone confirmed that she was delaying a decision on whether to launch a probe until after the outcome of a separate Electoral Commission investigation into the controversial refurb, reported to have cost up to £200,000.

The Commission today confirmed that the initial findings of its investigation into the “cash-for-curtains” affair have been provided to the Conservatives, to allow the party to make any representations about them before the preparation of its final report.

Downing Street declined to say whether Mr Johnson had seen the findings and whether he will be responding personally to them.

Mr Johnson’s botched attempt to tear up the Commons sleaze rules was yesterday described by his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings as “a pre-emptive strike” against both the Commission and Ms Stone in a bid to cover up alleged “lies” to an earlier investigation conducted by the PM’s independent ethics adviser Lord Geidt - something No 10 has denied.

Mr Cummings has called on Ms Stone to call witnesses to answer questions on the affair, and today said: “The Electoral Commission - like Geidt  - has so far interviewed NONE of the people who know/involved in PM’s illegal secret donations.”

The development came amid continuing anger on the Tory backbenches over the humiliating U-turn which saw Mr Johnson order them to vote on Wednesday for a revamp of standards rules to save Mr Paterson’s skin, only to reverse his position the next day in the face of “Tory sleaze” headlines.

Anger was particularly strong among younger members of the 2017 and 2019 intake, many of whom hold Red Wall seats by wafer-thin majorities and who do not want to be tainted by sleaze allegations linked to older colleagues. One 2019 MP was reported to have confronted Mr Paterson with an expletive-laden rebuke in the voting lobby.

Downing Street today failed to deny reports that Tory MPs had been told that regeneration cash could be withheld from their constituencies if they broke the three-line whip in Wednesday’s vote.

But a No 10 spokesperson said that Mr Johnson continues to have “full confidence” in chief whip Mark Spencer and leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, who were instrumental in the scheme to get Paterson off the hook by instituting a review of sleaze rules by a Tory-dominated committee, which would have considered granting him and other erring MPs a right to appeal against Ms Stone’s findings.

After business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng came under fire for suggesting that it was “difficult to see a future” for the independent commissioner, Downing Street said that Mr Johnson accepted Ms Stone should not be put under political pressure as she makes her decision on whether to launch an investigation into the flat renovation.

Asked if the PM would condemn any MP trying to put presure on her to drop the complaint, initially made by Margaret Hodge in April, the spokesperson said: “Obviously we wouldn’t want to see that happening.”

Lord Geidt’s report in May found that there was no conflict of interest in the funding arrangements for the makeover, but said that the PM was “unwise” to embark on the expensive work without knowing how it would be paid for. Prime ministers can call on public funds for the first £30,000 spent a year on the flat, but Mr Johnson also took £58,000 from Tory donor Lord Brownlow, which he eventually repaid out of his own pocket.

Dame Margaret told The Independent: “The only logical explanation for deliberately ignoring a clear case of corruption (in the Paterson affair) is that there are more cases coming down the line and they wanted to stop them happening. Mine is one of them.”

In her 7 May letter responding to Dame Margaret’s call for an inquiry into the funding of the flat refurbishment, Ms Stone said; “I have made no decision on whether it would be appropriate for me to look into the actions of the Prime Minister in his capacity as an MP.

“In order to avoid potentially prejudicing their ongoing investigation, I will await the outcome of the Electoral Commission’s inquiry before making any decision.”

A Commission spokesperson declined to give any timetable for the Conservative Party’s response to its findings or the eventual publication of the full report.

“The initial findings of our investigation have gone to the party, and it now has time to make any representations about those findings,” said the spokesperson. “This is in line with our standard practice and is designed to ensure fairness for those being investigated.

“Following this period, we will consider any response and make a final decision. We will publish our findings at that point, and will not be making further comment until then.”

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