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Boris Johnson criticised over flat refurbishment

Written by on 28 April 2021

A cabinet minister has dismissed continuing questions about how the prime minister’s flat refurbishment was funded by declaring that the public are not interested in “some wallpaper or sofas”.

Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, played down the impact of a number of allegations facing Boris Johnson, which have partly come as a result of an ongoing feud with his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

“I genuinely believe people are just more interested in getting on with their daily lives and the actions we’re taking to help them get back to a ‘new normal’ as it were post-COVID,” she told Sky News.

But senior political figures say the ongoing row is distracting and has the potential to do the government damage.

Further questions are being asked about Mr Johnson’s refurbishment of his private flat above 11 Downing Street, after both Number 10 and the Conservative Party did not deny reports that the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) paid the Cabinet Office to cover initial costs of the works.

It comes after leaked emails showed Tory donor Lord Brownlow claimed to have paid £58,000 to the Conservative Party to “cover payments” the party had already made.

Mr Johnson is now said to be repaying the Conservative Party, with Ms Coffey telling Sky News: “The right declarations will be made, the prime minister paid for it personally.”

Number 10 has said more details on the refurbishment of the prime minister’s flat will be included in the Cabinet Office’s annual report this year.

But Ms Coffey suggested the public were not interested in how and when the costs were paid for Mr Johnson’s refurbishments, despite the continuing lack of clarity.

“I guess for a number of people, while we’re trying to get through and tackling the virus and get people back into work, I don’t think the majority of the British public are in any way interested in some wallpaper or sofas or something like that,” she added.

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service, was among those critical of the response to the ongoing questions, telling Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby that “it comes across as chaotic, a toxic atmosphere and most importantly a lack of any kind of regard for any basic rules and principles really… In the end, that will do damage. I do think the prime minister needs to look very long and hard at the way he is approaching government”.

Senior backbench Conservative Sir Roger Gale was another concerned about the impact of the questions, adding: “The prime minister… is being distracted by matters that he frankly ought not to have to be concentrating on at the moment.

“I find it very worrying indeed that at a time when the prime minister ought to be able to give a thousand per cent of his concentration to the matters of state and international matters of state – the G7 summit, all sorts of things that require urgent attention – that’s what the prime minister, any prime minister, needs to be concentrating on.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News the row over Mr Johnson’s flat refurbishment “does matter”.

The prime minister and his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, are said to have pursued an overhaul of the flat in order to replace what has been termed Theresa May’s “John Lewis furniture nightmare”.

“We know he [Mr Johnson] wanted to upgrade his flat because he didn’t think John Lewis furniture was good enough,” Mr Ashworth told Sky News.

“I think John Lewis furniture is pretty good actually, pretty posh stuff.”

 Image: Dominic Cummings could be ‘a well-planned cyberattack in human form’, the PM has been warned

He added: “Yesterday he said he paid for it, overnight we had reports that the Tory party head office paid for it.

“We know they were asking business people to fund it – we need to know whether he’s had a loan from somebody, is he paying it back to them, is he paying it back to them with interest, and who he is beholden to.

“Because somebody has funded his sofas, his bedding and the bed he sleeps in at night, we need to know if that person has an interest in government policy, whether that person has an interest in winning government contracts.

“The reason why there are so many questions this morning… is because Boris Johnson still hasn’t offered a full and frank explanation.

“And we deserve transparency, because when you’re the most powerful politician in the land, we need to know who you are beholden to.”

Claims about the Downing Street flat come amid a mounting series of allegations Mr Johnson is having to face, along with the Greensill lobbying row at Westminster.

Former Conservative leader William Hague has warned the government it would be “a mistake… to dismiss the latest allegations of sleaze as a fleeting problem”.

He warned Mr Cummings’s appearance at a House of Commons committee hearing next month could see Mr Johnson’s former chief aide come “armed with audio recordings, screen grabs, email chains and other partial but revealing evidence”.

“Someone who might have been a dodgy witness will instead be a well-planned cyberattack in human form,” Lord Hague wrote in The Times.

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Asked about Lord Hague’s comments, Ms Coffey told Sky News that many people “will have come to their own views” about Mr Cummings following the row over his lockdown trips to the North East last year.

Meanwhile, senior Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat told Sky News that “integrity matters in politics” and the allegations facing Mr Johnson were “serious”.

But he added: “Let’s not overlook the fact that this is, in many ways, an internal dispute between two people.

“I hope very much that the accusations will cease and we can get back to doing what we need to do, which is to recover after the most extraordinarily painful year for many, many people.”

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