Keir Starmer has issued a challenge to Boris Johnson to draw a halt to controversy over the lavish renovation of his Downing Street flat by going in front of the cameras today to explain exactly how it was funded.
With three separate inquiries now under way into the £88,000 refit, and the Electoral Commission warning that offences may have been committed, Starmer said the PM could clear the matter up “in one minute” and allow the country to move on from the “ridiculous farce”.
His refusal to do so suggested he has something to hide, said the Labour leader.
Mr Johnson is facing the prospect of being forced to give evidence in person on the “cash for curtains” affair to the Commission’s inquiry and to hand over private text messages and emails with Downing Street aides and his fiancee Carrie Symonds.
And he is under fire after he made clear he will hold onto his role as final arbiter in an investigation by his independent standards adviser Lord Geidt, while an internal review by cabinet secretary Simon Case will also report direct to the PM.
He yesterday told the House of Commons that he personally paid for spending beyond the £30,000 annual renovation fund provided by the taxpayer. But he repeatedly dodged questions over whether the Conservative Party or a wealthy donor initially offered cash to cover excess redecoration costs running to at least £58,000.
Speaking during an election campaign visit to Manchester, Sir Keir said: “This is getting a bit farcical. I think the prime minister could actually deal with this very, very quickly.
“All he’s got to do is answer a very simple question; which is who paid, initially, for the redecoration of your flat?”
Starmer added: “I think most people would say, ‘If I had my flat redecorated, I’d be able to answer that question’.
“So, the prime minister could actually end this now, tell us who paid for it in the first place, answer the question, it would take him about one minute and then he can get back on with the day job.”
And he said: “The question’s really moved on. The first question is who actually paid for this redecoration in the first place. The second question, I think, is probably the bigger question now: why is the prime minister not prepared to just answer that question? What is he hiding?”
Sir Keir said that Lord Geidt’s terms of reference - which allow him to propose an investigation of alleged misconduct, but not to launch one without the PM’s approval - showed that the system for overseeing ministerial behaviour was “weak”.
“That’s why what we are proposing is that we clean up Westminster,” he said. “We have to have a proper, independent commission.”
Mr Johnson rejected a recommendation from sleaze watchdog the Committee on Standards in Public Life for the independent adviser to be given powers to instigate inquiries himself.
CSPL chair Lord Evans today said this was necessary for the role to have “true independence”.
Lord Evans told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “We still believe that full independence, so that an adviser can advise the Prime Minister on the basis of his own initiative, is valuable and we will continue to keep that under review.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted the important issue was that Mr Johnson had paid for the flat’s revamp.
Pressed on the issue in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Zahawi said: “You can hear the frustration in my voice in the sense that there have been so many questions asked about this. “The important one is who paid for this, because did the taxpayer pay for this? No, they didn’t – Boris Johnson paid for it.” Following reports that Ms Symonds described the flat decor left behind by Theresa May as a “John Lewis nightmare”, Mr Zahawi was asked why furnishings from the upmarket department store were “not good enough” for the prime minister.
He replied: “Whether it is John Lewis or Lulu Lytle, the important thing for your listeners is that the Prime Minister paid for this, not the taxpayer.” Mr Zahawi said it was “right” that the PM should retain the final say on whether ministers should be sacked for misconduct.
“All ministers serve with the confidence of the prime minister – I think that’s right, that is the right system to have,” he said. “So it is only right that the adviser on ministerial conduct has to be able to report to the prime minister.”
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