Inside Keir Starmer’s office, jubilant aides described Boris Johnson’s spiel at the prime minister’s questions as his “Kevin Keegan moment,” when the trickle of sordid stories finally seemed to have him baffled.
The timing could not have been better for the Labor leader. The Election Commission opened its formal investigation into whether the Conservative party violated election law on donation plans to renovate Johnson’s flat, just an hour before the couple faced off in the House of Commons.
So far, the number 10 seems to have little to offer by way of distraction. The aides, and Johnson himself, will only repeat the tired line that the prime minister has paid for the redecoration himself and that all the proper statements have been made. The fact that they won’t reveal who initially paid for the lavish works, or whether Johnson is paying off a loan, has puzzled MPs and cabinet ministers.
“I don’t know what happened myself, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better to be honest now,” said a cabinet minister.
Another MP said he thought the current dance around the use of the present tense in the Downing Street remarks “will make people think there is something more serious to hide.” Therein lies the danger for Johnson and his Conservative government.
The Election Commission investigation could very well have dire consequences for the prime minister and many of his most prominent advisers. On Wednesday, the commission stated that it already believed there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that a crime or crimes may have been committed.”
You can now issue a notice of investigation that requires evidence from anyone, which could include Johnson, his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, or the conservative president, Amanda Milling.
It might also require evidence from Lord Brownlow, the par tory who was approached to chair the Downing Street Trust, a charity for the works at Nos. 10 and 11 that was never released, and the donor who reportedly gave £ 58,000 to the party to pay. for renovations. Johnson has now paid for them himself.
The commission could demand to see private WhatsApp messages, emails or any other evidence if it suspects a possible violation of the electoral law. It can issue fines of up to £ 20,000 and refer the findings to the police. You can also request documents, if necessary through court orders.
And perhaps worst of all for Johnson is that the investigation will last for months, thus keeping the story in the headlines. Other regulatory bodies have also been asked to investigate and, as with Greensill Capital and the lobbying scandal, the investigations could grow.
Another that could still investigate is the parliamentary standards commissioner, whose sanctions include the possible removal of any deputy who has violated its rules, a power that the Electoral Commission does not have.
One factor saving Johnson is that his ministers say they have yet to see evidence that the issue is actually affecting the electorate. MPs ‘inboxes are not overflowing, unlike when news broke of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle.
A cabinet minister said they had not received a single email on the matter. “I think they save us because people are not very sure if there is a scandal here. Who normally pays for the flat? How do declarations work? It’s quite technical. “
A Whitehall source who accompanied the prime minister on his campaign visits last week said that no voter had raised any of the issues with him, not his apartment, nor his alleged comments that he would rather let the bodies pile up than ask. a third closure. .
But some concerned MPs and ministers recall that the scandals that ended John Major, while not individually fatal, had a cumulative effect. “There is a risk that we will dismiss all of this as irrelevant on its own, carpets, gossip, whatever, and ignore the bigger picture,” said one minister, making the link to Major.
It is not just the official investigations that the Tories fear could cause permanent long-term damage, but some of the throwaway comments that have been used to justify the scandal, which penetrates deep into central England. One is the description by Symonds’ friends that Theresa May had turned the previous apartment into a “John Lewis nightmare,” a subtle but brutal class signifier.
Another is the comment by Sarah Vine, columnist and wife of Michael Gove, that a prime minister could not be expected to “live in a leap,” despite the images from May’s time as prime minister of gleaming glass tables. and wood paneling that clearly looks un-skiplike.
It may seem trivial, but sloppy lines can be the kind that people remember. Politics is often more complicated than if certain things change the ballot box the following week, what matters is the impressions that are made over time, and that is what Labor also has.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism