U.K.’s ‘Sleaze’ Scandal: How Bad Can It Get for Boris Johnson?

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to deny he broke the law, as a series of rows from lobbying to what the opposition has dubbed “sleaze” threaten to engulf his government.

The Electoral Commission opened a probe into whether funding arrangements for the refurbishment of his apartment breached election legislation last year. The inquiry could last months. With more claims likely to emerge from disillusioned former aide Dominic Cummings in the weeks ahead, Johnson’s political authority is on the line.

What has Johnson done?

The latest row centers on who paid for the refit of Johnson’s apartment at 11 Downing Street and when, and whether this was reported to the appropriate authorities at the right time.

U.K.’s ‘Sleaze’ Scandal: How Bad Can It Get for Boris Johnson?

Johnson told Parliament on Wednesday he’d “personally” paid for the work and said no laws had been broken, but refused three times to be drawn when Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pointedly asked who initially paid the bill.

What are the allegations against the PM?

Starmer’s line of questioning referred to an explosive blog post last Friday by Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings, who said the prime minister planned to have secret donors pay for the renovations.

The Electoral Commission is now investigating whether Johnson took an undeclared loan from a political donor to cover the costs, which some reports have said run to 200,000 pounds ($278,000).

Johnson’s office has failed to deny reports that he initially received a loan --- reported to be 58,000 pounds -- from Conservative Party donor and peer David Brownlow for part of the cost.

Who is investigating?

The Electoral Commission, which regulates political donations, is conducting a probe into whether Johnson or his party committed any offenses.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the U.K.’s most senior civil servant, is also conducting an internal investigation.

Christopher Geidt, an unaffiliated member of the House of Lords who was named Wednesday as the government’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, is holding a third inquiry.

What are the possible penalties?

The Electoral Commission has the powers to levy fines of as much as 20,000 pounds, and it can also refer cases to the police for criminal proceedings.

Geidt’s probe will draw on evidence gathered by Case, but controversially the prime minister himself is the final arbiter of whether to accept the findings.

Starmer alluded to the ultimate penalty in the House of Commons. He referenced the ministerial code, which states that “ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.”

Are there any other scandals?

Yes, lots. Johnson’s administration and party also face cronyism allegations following months of revelations about the lobbying of ministers by the now insolvent lender Greensill Capital, aided by former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, an adviser to the firm.

That’s spawned a slew of probes by parliamentary committees, one commissioned by Johnson himself, and another by the government spending watchdog, ranging from the specific contacts with Greensill to the broader relationship between government and business.

Johnson is also embroiled in a row over who leaked plans for a coronavirus lockdown last year. Cummings accused Johnson of trying to halt the probe to protect a friend of his fiancee; his office says the inquiry is ongoing.

Why does it all matter?

A week before key local elections across the country, including in Scotland, the furor risks fueling the perception that Johnson’s government is out of touch with the ordinary people it says it represents.

Though most recent opinion polls still give the Tories a double-digit lead, the drip-drip of negative headlines has distracted attention from what the party wants to talk about -- the successful coronavirus vaccine rollout. If the government suffers long-term reputational damage, the impact could be far-reaching in the years ahead.

Can things get worse for Johnson?

Cummings’s May 26 appearance before a parliamentary panel examining the government’s handling of the pandemic looms large. Officials fear more revelations from Johnson’s former ally, who has promised to answer questions “for as long as MPs want.”

The question is whether there are big enough bombshells in store to threaten Johnson’s position. History shows the Conservative Party has no qualms about turning on leaders they think have become a liability, but the bar is high for Johnson given his huge win in the 2019 general election, and his track record of shrugging off controversies that would have brought other politicians down.

While the outcome of the Electoral Commission and other investigations will be important, much will depend on whether Johnson’s Tories still think their leader can win next time.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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