Probe clears Johnson over ‘wallpapergate’ scandal

Published May 29, 2021
Publishing an annual report on ministerial interests, the UK government’s newly appointed adviser on ministerial
standards found that Johnson “knew nothing” about how the designer makeover of his private quarters was funded, noting the works had begun as he was critically ill with Covid-19 in early April 2020. AFP/File
Publishing an annual report on ministerial interests, the UK government’s newly appointed adviser on ministerial standards found that Johnson “knew nothing” about how the designer makeover of his private quarters was funded, noting the works had begun as he was critically ill with Covid-19 in early April 2020. AFP/File

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson acted “unwisely” over funding arrangements for a lavish makeover of his Downing Street flat, but was not guilty of any impropriety, his ethics adviser concluded on Friday.

The finding by Christopher Geidt, the UK government’s newly appointed adviser on ministerial standards, does not entirely lift the cloud over the “wallpapergate” affair with several other probes still under way.

It is also likely to fuel questions about why civil servants, at Johnson’s direction, were busy working on creating a White House-style trust to manage the Downing Street complex in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

Publishing an annual report on ministerial interests, Geidt found that Johnson “knew nothing” about how the designer makeover of his private quarters was funded, noting the works had begun as he was critically ill with Covid-19 in early April 2020.

The prime minister should have shown more curiosity later but believed that the putative charitable trust would take care of the invoices, Geidt said.

Officials failed to brief Johnson that the proposed trust was proving hard to get off the ground, he said, and the invoices were in fact settled by the Conservative Party and a wealthy party donor.

“Given the level of the prime minister’s expectations for the trust to deliver on the objects he had set, this was a significant failing,” the adviser’s report said.

“Instead, the prime minister — unwisely, in my view — allowed the refurbishment of the apartment at No 11 Downing Street to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded.”

Johnson only became aware of the issue in February this year, Geidt said, after press reports raised questions about funding for the redecoration — which reportedly stretched to $284,000, far above an annual government allowance.

He settled the bill himself in March, and Geidt said he was “content that no conflict — or reasonably perceived conflict — arises as a result of these interests”.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the adviser’s report showed Johnson had adhered to the UK ministerial code “at all times” and stressed that no taxpayer money was used in the redecoration, above the allowance of 30,000 pounds.

Breaches of the code are normally considered a matter for resignation — Geidt’s predecessor quit when Johnson refused to fire Home Secretary Priti Patel over a finding that she had bullied her officials.

Geidt meanwhile was grilled by opposition MPs two weeks ago on whether he is truly independent of Johnson.

The adviser is firmly an establishment figure: a former army officer and diplomat, he was private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II for 10 years to 2017, and sits in the House of Lords.

Several parliamentary probes remain under way over the flat revamp. Most seriously for Johnson, Britain’s Electoral Commission last month launched its own investigation.

The commission, which regulates political finance and can refer investigations to the police, said it had found “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2021

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