U.K.’s Johnson Struggles to Defuse Row Over Integrity, Sleaze

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Boris Johnson remains embroiled in a row over his integrity and conduct as U.K. prime minister, with his administration struggling to move beyond questions over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and allegations surrounding the refurbishment of his official residence.

Responding to another round of critical newspaper headlines, Johnson’s spokesman did not deny the premier had said last year he’d rather let the coronavirus “rip” than impose another national lockdown. It follows days of officials denying Johnson had said bodies should “pile high” rather than shutting down the economy for a second time to curb infections.

“The reports put forward speculation, they distort the actions the prime minister has taken, which is to save lives and livelihoods,” spokesman Max Blain told reporters on Tuesday. He again denied the “pile high” comment, which was reported by the BBC, ITV and the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

The controversy over wording feeds into longstanding divisions over the effectiveness of the government’s pandemic response. Critics have said the delay in ordering a lockdown last fall -- Johnson did do so in November -- contributed to the higher death toll in the second wave of the pandemic in the U.K.

But it also feeds into broader questions about trustworthiness and integrity that threaten to undermine the government ahead of key elections next month. The furor that began over lobbying of ministers by the since collapsed Greensill Capital has now widened to the prime minister’s own conduct.

Payments

Johnson is facing intense scrutiny over the financing of a refurbishment of his residence in Downing Street, and whether he received and appropriately declared any donations or party funds for the works. ITV reported that the Conservative Party had loaned Johnson the funds, which he then paid back.

The government’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, announced a review of how the refit was paid for on Monday.

Blain declined to comment on how the project was originally funded, saying that Johnson had since covered all the costs himself. “He will make any declarations in the normal manner,” Blain said. “He’s keen to focus on the issues the public care about.”

The continuing media furor threatens to erode a recent boost in support for the Conservative Party, buoyed by the nation’s vaccination program. The U.K. holds elections in London, Scotland and other key battlegrounds on May 6, though currently the Tories remain ahead in the opinion polls.

Beyond that, the scheduled appearance at a parliamentary hearing by Johnson’s former senior aide, Dominic Cummings, next month looms large for the government. In an incendiary blog post last week, Cummings accused his former boss of making plans that were “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal.”

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