Boris Johnson under pressure as opposition seeks ethics probe

Call for inquiries into Spanish holiday and Downing Street flat refurbishment

A sleaze scandal rattled Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives as he tried to pull off a political triumph at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow. Photo: AFP
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing calls for two separate ethics inquiries as his opponents try to capitalise on a sleaze scandal that has tarnished his government’s image.

The opposition Labour Party said Mr Johnson had broken parliamentary rules by failing to declare details of a luxury holiday in Spain last month and the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.

It accused him of trying to use an inquiry into one of his MPs, Owen Paterson, to sabotage the ethics watchdog that would carry out such an investigation.

Mr Johnson’s Conservatives moved to reform the watchdog rather than accept its recommendation that Mr Paterson be suspended for 30 days.

But they backed down amid a huge political backlash, and Mr Paterson subsequently resigned as an MP.

The scandal was an unwelcome distraction for Mr Johnson as his government appeals for moral leadership from the world during the Cop26 summit.

Speaking on Saturday, one of Mr Johnson's predecessors, Sir John Major, said the government's behaviour was shameful and had damaged the reputation of Parliament.

"Sleaze is unacceptable, was unacceptable when I was there, and I suffered a great deal of pain and anguish over it," Mr Major, whose time in office was marred by ministerial scandals, told BBC radio.

"It's unacceptable today, and it needs to be stopped."

Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, called for the standards commissioner to open two investigations into Mr Johnson.

“Boris Johnson’s attempt to make Conservative MPs judge and jury over allegations of corruption and rule-breaking was a blatant attempt to prevent the commissioner from investigating his latest breaches of the rules,” she said.

Last month, Mr Johnson stayed at a holiday home in Spain owned by Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative former minister.

This was declared in a list of ministerial donations but not entered on the parliamentary register of interests.

“It can’t be one rule for Boris Johnson and another for the rest of us,” said Ms Rayner as she called for an inquiry into the holiday.

A Downing Street spokesman said the trip was a family break unconnected to Mr Johnson’s parliamentary activities.

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

Downing Street flat back in spotlight

The opposition also wants to revive the issue of the Downing Street flat refurbishment, which hit the headlines in April and is being investigated by the Electoral Commission.

Mr Johnson lives in the flat above 11 Downing Street, the house next to his prime ministerial headquarters in London, with his wife, Carrie, and their young son, Wilfred.

He said he had settled the bill for the renovation himself after it was paid by a Conservative party donor, Lord Brownlow.

A report by an independent adviser in May did not find any wrongdoing but said Mr Johnson should have taken more interest in the funding arrangements.

Labour wants to bring the issue back into focus by accusing Mr Johnson of failing to disclose the details to Parliament.

The party has sought to use cronyism allegations as a line of attack against the Conservatives, who saw their poll ratings drop after the Paterson episode. Ministers have previously been found to have broken rules over contracts related to Covid-19.

Mr Paterson was accused by the ethics watchdog of breaking parliamentary rules by lobbying for companies for whom he was a paid consultant.

He denied wrongdoing, and Conservative MPs sought to circumvent his suspension by revamping the ethics system under a new committee.

But opposition parties, including Labour, said they would boycott the committee. The Conservatives backed down the following day.

Mr Paterson maintained that he was “totally innocent” but said his children had urged him to leave what he described as the “cruel world of politics”. He said his critics had mocked the death of his wife, Rose, who took her own life last year.

Updated: November 06, 2021, 6:58 PM