Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of trying to “take down” the standards watchdog for his personal interests as Downing Street made a new bid to stop the regulator investigating the controversy around his flat refurbishment.
Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com
The Labour leader said Johnson was leading the Conservative party “through the sewers and the stench lingers,” highlighting a pattern of behaviour where the government “goes after” those charged with enforcing the rules.
Days after Johnson was forced by a public and party backlash to abandon attempts to overhaul the standards watchdog, No 10 argued on Monday that the prime minister did not need to declare how much he was loaned by a Tory donor to make over his Downing Street flat.
The commissioner, Kathryn Stone, is set to rule within weeks on a potential investigation into whether Johnson properly declared the funding as an MP. She will decide after the Electoral Commission finishes its inquiry the Conservatives’ role in helping to fund the £50,000-plus refurb.
But on Monday Johnson’s spokesman said the matter was declared in the list of ministerial interests and said there was no need for the prime minister to have registered it on the list of MPs’ interests as well – putting it outside the remit of the commissioner.
Asked if the prime minister believed Stone should be able to investigate the flat refurbishment, the spokesman said: “Obviously it’s a matter for her on that. The interest, as you know, has been transparently declared by the prime minister following advice from Lord [Christopher] Geidt, the independent adviser.
“And the Commons rulebook is very clear that such ministerial code declarations do not need to be double-declared. And the flat was clearly a ministerial matter, as the PM only occupies it by virtue of his office.”
A Downing Street source dismissed Starmer’s accusation that the prime minister had tried to “take down” Stone, claiming it was “not true”.
Labour has repeatedly called on Stone to investigate whether Johnson should have declared a loan from a Tory donor, David Brownlow, to fund his flat redecoration. The cost has never been formally confirmed, although party accounts showed it covered a £52,802 “bridging loan”, which was later paid by Lord Brownlow and subsequently repaid by Johnson.
An inquiry by Geidt, the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, found Johnson had acted “unwisely” by not taking enough interest in the funding of the renovations, but not broken any rules.
“It is not for the prime minister or cabinet ministers to decide what the independent anti-corruption commissioner investigates,” said Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader. Stone has previously investigated Johnson three times, including an inquiry into the funding of his holiday in Mustique by a Tory donor and the late registration of financial interests.
Johnson was absent from parliament as MPs debated the Westminster sleaze scandal on Monday, where several Tory MPs were among those criticising the government for its efforts last week to overturn a 30-day suspension for Owen Paterson, a Conservative backbencher who broke the lobbying ban.
In the process, the government also tried to announce reform of the wider standards system for MPs, proposing that John Whittingdale, a cabinet minister and former boss of Johnson’s wife, Carrie, should be put in charge of the shake-up. But the move was abandoned after a backlash among the public, media and MPs.
Starmer said: “It wasn’t a tactical mistake, an innocent misjudgment swiftly corrected by a U-turn. It was the prime minister’s way of doing business. A pattern of behaviour.
“When the prime minister’s adviser on the ministerial code found against the home secretary, the prime minister kept the home secretary and forced out the adviser. When the Electoral Commission investigated the Conservative party, the prime minister threatened to shut it down. And when the commissioner for standards looked into the prime minister’s donations, the prime minister tried to take her down.”
With the prime minister taking the train back from a hospital visit in Northumberland, it was left to Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, to expressed “regret” in the House of Commons for the government’s misjudged attempts to change the rules.
Johnson refused to apologise for the furore over standards in an interview earlier in the day. But several Tory backbenchers were unimpressed with his refusal to attend. Mark Harper, a former chief whip, said: “Politics is a team game. It’s essential to work with your colleagues to deliver anything. But if the team captain is to expect loyalty from the backbenchers and for minsters to listen to the direction of the team captain, they deserve that decisions are well thought through and soundly based.
“As on this occasion … if the team captain gets it wrong, then I think he should come and apologise to the public and to this house. That’s the right thing to do in terms of demonstrating leadership.”