Boris Johnson should be busy with state affairs – not curtains

British Prime Minister has no lack of real issues to deal with

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 29:  Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks with pupils after taking part in a science lesson at King Solomon Academy in Marylebone, on April 29, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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With Britain tackling the coronavirus pandemic and lingering issues relating to Brexit still causing concern, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson certainly has no shortage of issues that require his attention.

But instead of devoting his energy to important affairs of state, Mr Johnson is having to spend a great deal of his time dealing with an increasingly acrimonious dispute over the redecoration of the Downing Street flat he shares with his fiancee Carrie Symonds.

All British prime ministers are provided with one of the grace-and-favour flats above the maze of offices in Downing Street, which house the prime minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Nearly all prime ministers redecorate their flat when taking office, taking advantage of the £30,000 annual allowance they are given to make the property more to their liking.

The controversy surrounding Mr Johnson concerns the estimated £200,000 he and Ms Symonds are said to have spent on redecorating their new home above Number 11 Downing Street.

The Labour opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer has accused the prime minister of using money provided by a Conservative Party donor to cover the cost of the expensive refurbishment which, if true, would be a breach of the parliamentary code.

CORRECTION / Numbers 12 (L), 11 (C) and 10 (R) Downing Street are pictured in central London on April 28, 2021. Britain's Electoral Commission on Wednesday announced a formal investigation into how Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid for a lavish makeover of his Downing Street flat, seriously escalating a simmering scandal. Johnson, his fiancee Carrie Symonds and their baby son live in quarters above Number 11 Downing Street, which are more spacious than those attached to Number 10. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS
Numbers 12 (L), 11 (C) and 10 (R) Downing Street. Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid for a lavish makeover of his Downing Street flat. Mr Johnson, his fiancee Carrie Symonds and their baby son live in quarters above Number 11 Downing Street – more spacious than those attached to Number 10. AFP

Under the rules governing parliamentary standards, any donations to serving ministers must be declared in the interests of transparency, and to date no such declaration has come from Mr Johnson, despite repeated requests to do so from opposition MPs and the media.

Mr Johnson insists that he paid for the cost of the renovation out of his own pocket. But concerns over how the money was raised have been deemed so serious that the Electoral Commission has announced that it is launching an inquiry, on the basis that there is sufficient evidence to suggest an offence was committed.

Mr Johnson's supporters insist that the affair is nothing more than a witch hunt by the Labour opposition

Mr Johnson’s supporters insist that the affair is nothing more than a witch hunt by the Labour opposition to discredit the prime minister’s reputation ahead of next week’s local government elections.

Polls show the Conservatives to be 10 points ahead of Labour, and the elections are expected to result in heavy gains for Mr Johnson’s party.

As one Johnson loyalist remarked this week: “Boris Johnson is not going to be forced out of office over an argument about who paid for a pair of curtains.”

Nevertheless, the furore was sparked, leading to angry exchanges between Mr Johnson and Mr Starmer during the weekly session of prime minister’s questions in the Commons.

It has clearly unnerved Mr Johnson, especially as the person said to be responsible for the leak concerning his home improvements is none other than Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former close adviser.

Mr Cummings first came to prominence as the intellectual driving force behind Mr Johnson’s successful Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum.

He later became a key adviser to Mr Johnson in Downing Street after his thumping victory in the 2019 general election.

But tension first emerged between the two men after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year, with Mr Cummings said to be dismayed by Mr Johnson’s initial reluctance to impose a widespread lockdown.

Mr Cummings’s reputation was not helped by his bizarre decision to drive to his family home to Northumberland after contracting coronavirus, which was deemed a major breach of the rules.

Subsequently, the rift between the men continued to the point where Mr Johnson sacked Mr Cummings last November.

Now the former adviser has been accused of exacting revenge by revealing disobliging allegations about Mr Johnson’s past conduct.

Apart from the claims about the Downing Street refurbishment, Mr Cummings is accused of leaking sensitive details of former prime minister David Cameron’s attempts to lobby the government on behalf of a financial firm for which he was working, and the highly inflammatory claim that Mr Johnson would rather let the “bodies pile high” than impose a third lockdown, an allegation the prime minister has strongly denied.

While in many respects the fallout between Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings has all the makings of a bad soap opera, on another, more serious level, it raises serious questions about the ability of the Johnson government to operate effectively.

The fact that private conversations and text exchanges taking place at the heart of the government can suddenly be exposed on the front pages of the British press has left many ministers wondering if they can provide an honest assessment of their views without them later being aired in public.

The intensity of the attacks on Mr Johnson also raises questions about his ability to govern the country at a time when his government is constantly being forced to defend itself against accusations of sleaze and inappropriate conduct.

In many respects, he has only himself to blame for his predicament.

Widely regarded as a maverick, Mr Johnson is not popular with his parliamentary colleagues, many of whom are jealous of his wider popularity with the electorate, which has seen him triumph in elections for the mayor of London, the Brexit referendum and the most recent general election.

Consequently, at a time when he desperately needs allies, few have been willing to provide unconditional support for their leader.

And the constant attacks on his conduct and integrity come at a time when he needs to devote all of his resources to tackling the pandemic, as well as dealing with looming issues that threaten the future survival of the UK.

This week’s resignation of Arlene Foster as First Minister of Northern Ireland is said to be the result of growing disquiet within her Democratic Unionist Party over her handling of post-Brexit trading arrangements between mainland Britain and the province.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalists are hoping to achieve victory in next week’s Scottish elections, which would almost certainly result in demands for a second referendum for independence.

Both of these developments could pose significant constitutional challenges for the UK; challenges that will require the full, undivided attention of a British prime minister who is not distracted by constant arguments over the cost of his home improvements.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National