Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer had one of the most heated PMQs exchanges this year today as the Labour leader focussed his questions on accusations that the recent refurbishment works on the flat above Number 11 Downing Street were funded by Tory donors.
After leading with a question on the PM’s alleged ‘let the bodies pile high’ comment which was roundly rebuffed, Starmer shifted focus to Flat-gate, where he remained for the rest of the session.
Johnson insisted throughout that he has covered the costs of the refurb personally, but the wording of Starmer’s questions and the prime minister’s answers leaves open the possibility that the works were initially paid for by someone else.
Given the week Johnson is having it may come as a surprise that there came no knockout blow for Starmer, but Johnson has proved time and time again that he is at his best when backed into a corner, and he will likely have left the chamber after today’s PMQs feeling largely unscathed.
PMQs: Boris Johnson to face questions over Downing Street refurbishment and ‘let the bodies pile high’ comment
Last updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2021, 12:44
Westminster prepares for what could be a particularly memorable PMQs
It is almost Wednesday lunchtime, which can only mean one thing; Prime Minister’s Questions is about to get underway.
This week’s opportunity for Sir Keir Starmer to press Boris Johnson is sure to result in some fireworks, thanks to the abundance of leaks, allegations and scandals swirling around Downing Street currently. Indeed, Sir Keir is almost spoilt for choice when it comes to picking the topics for his six questions today.
The Conservatives have tried to pass it off as a non-story, but the expensive renovation works carried out on the flat above 11 Downing Street - and where the money came from to fund them - is sure to feature prominently. Rumours about a Downing Street Trust being set up to funnel money from Tory donors into the expensive home-improvements have been abound for months, but Dominic Cummings brought the issue to the fore once again this week with a revelatory blog post in which he said he had advised the PM against such a move, on the grounds that it would be “unethical, foolish” and “possibly illegal”.
Then there are the alleged comments made by Boris Johnson in October, relating to the decision to impose a second national lockdown.
“No more ****ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands!” the PM is alleged to have shouted, during a discussion with cabinet secretary Michael Gove.
Johnson denies making the incendiary remark, but a number of sources are sticking to their guns; they maintain that the PM did utter the words.
It’s not hard to see how these issues could pose problems for Johnson, but one of the skills which Johnson has most relied on in office and throughout his political career is his ability to weather a storm.
Could this be yet another time when the prime minister sails right through seemingly choppy waters, or could Sir Keir’s volley of questions actually sink the good-ship Johnson? Join me at 12:00pm to find out.
The European Super League... remember that?
It’s perhaps testament to the difficulty Boris Johnson is currently facing that his involvement in an issue which lead all the front pages last week likely won’t make the cut today, but questions do remain over Johnson’s involvement in the short-lived European Super League saga.
Johnson and his government were quick out of the blocks to denounce the money-grabbing league proposal when it was announced, but there have been reports since that he had actually given it the green-light just a few days beforehand.
Labour has called for clarification from the PM, after the Sunday Times reported that he had given Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward the impression he would back the proposal in a meeting which took place less than a week before it went public.
With just six questions available to him, and plenty of potentially damaging topics, this may not make the cut in today’s PMQs - although keen football fan Starmer might just see this as too much of an open goal to pass up.
Electoral Commission weighs in
After previously confirming that it was in talks with the Conservative Party over allegations that donors were funding the renovation works in the flat above Number 11 Downing Street, the Electoral Commission has now announced that it will launch an investigation into the matter. This raises a number of questions - not least how quickly Starmer is able to redraft his questions for today’s PMQs. The announcement came at around 11:40am.
Question 1 - ‘Let the bodies pile high'
Starmer quotes press reports that Johnson said he would rather have “bodies pile high” than implement another lockdown.
Asks the PM to categorically deny whether he said this. Boris Johnson says “no” and says Starmer should substantiate his allegations. This isn’t new as Johnson has gone on record denying he ever said this a couple of times now.
Question 2 - Who *initially* paid for Downing Street flat
Starmer asks Johnson who “initially” paid for the renovations to his Downing Street flat, with great emphasis on the ‘initially’. This is likely because most of the denials relating to this story have been phrased in a particular way, with ministers and the PMs spokesperson being quite careful to say that “Conservative Party funds are not being used to pay for the Downing Street flat.” When Conservative chair Amanda Milling was asked specifically whether they “have not” been used for this purpose, she repeated her initial answer.
Downing Street flat, continued
PM much less straightforward on this one. He references a mistake Starmer made in parliament a few weeks ago on his opposition to leaving the European Medicines Agency, then talks about James Dyson. He does eventually move on to say that “I paid for Downing Street refurbishment personally” but says that “any further declaration that I have to make, if any, I will be advised upon”.
He moves on to talk about differences in council tax between Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative councils. Starmer retorts: “Normally when people don’t want to incriminate themselves, they say ‘no comment’.
Starmer says he wants to make it easy for the PM, so offers him a “multiple choice”.
“Either the taxpayer paid the initial invoice, or the Conservative party, or it was a private donor, or the Prime minister.
“Who paid the initial invoice?”
“I’ve given him the answer"
“I’ve given him the answer, and the answer is I have covered the costs” Again, the PM doesn’t answer the exact question of who paid the initial invoice.
He says most people will find it “absolutely bizarre” that Starmer is focussing on this issue.
“Answer the question!"
Starmer asks Johnson: “What does he spending his time doing?” Accuses the PM of “nipping out of meetings to choose wallpaper” and phoning journalists to “moan about his old friend Dominic Cummings”.
He asks PM to confirm whether Lord Brownlow made a £58,000 payment toward the costs of the Downing Street flat refurbishment.
Again, Johnson swerves the question, to which Starmer replies: “Answer the question! That’s what the public scream at their televisions every PMQS. The prime minster hasn’t answered the question, he knows he hasn’t answered the question”
Looks like Starmer did do some last-minute redrafting. He quotes the Electoral Commission’s, says they think “there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.
“That’s incredibly serious” he continues, “can the prime minister tell the house, does he believe any rules or laws have been broken?”