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?”
Boris bites back
After insisting that he “covered the cost” of refurbishment in answer to several questions, Johnson hits back.
“No I don’t. What I believe has been strained to breaking point is the credulity of the public. He has half an hour every week to put serious and sensible questions to me about the state of the pandemic, about the vaccine rollout, about what we’re doing to support our NHS, about what we’re doing to fight crime, about what we’re doing to bounce back from this pandemic, about the economic recovery, about jobs for the people of this country. And he goes on and on about wallpaper, when I’ve said umpteen times now: I paid for it!”
Starmer quotes the Nolan principles.
“Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness honesty and leadership.” He then lists “dodgy contracts, jobs for their mates and cash for access” and says the prime minister, “Major Sleaze” is at the heart of it.
Johnson in full bluster mode now, after shaking his head furiously at Starmer’s last question.
Says the government is sending ventilators to India after last week Starmer attacked him over Dyson and ventilators (worth noting here that the ventilators sent to India will not have been manufactured by Dyson).
Says Labour attacked vaccine taskforce head Kate Bingham for cronyism, when she has delivered the vaccine.
“Our friends in the European Union”
On something of a roll, Johnson says; “I forgot to mention it - last night our friends in the European Union voted to approve out Brexit deal, which he opposed”
Says it enables us to take control of our borders, which Starmer opposed, and deliver Freeports in places like Teeside. Also credits the Brexit deal with allowing the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout.
“Week after week the people of this country can see the difference between a Labour party, which twists and turns with the wind that thinks of nothing but playing political games, whereas this party gets on with delivering on the people’s priorities, and I hope people will vote Conservative on May 6th.”
His finishing statement is met by barracking from the benches behind him, prompting the speaker to call for quiet; something of a rarity in the socially-distanced House of Commons, and an indicator of the tone of this week’s exchange.
And that’s it.
Starmer’s approach was typically considered and as is often the case seemed to be about getting Johnson on record in hopes he will be proved to have lied in the future, rather than scoring rhetorical points.
With so much to choose from today, Johnson’s somewhat rattled reaction to his questions on the Downing Street flat story suggest Starmer picked right to focus on this over the ‘let the bodies pile high’ comments.
Despite some punchy sections in his responses the prime minister did seem to stumble a little on the detail of the refurbishment claims. His insistence on using the specific wording that he “has covered the cost” suggests there is something to the claims that refurbishment costs were initially met by Tory donors.
Although it’s difficult to know how much this issue will cut through if, as seems to be the case, the worst thing that could yet come out is that while a Tory donor did pay toward the refurbishments, the PM later covered the cost.
Will voters take major issue with this? It seems doubtful, and Johnson’s lines about PMQs being an opportunity for Starmer to ask about the pandemic, the recovery, jobs or the NHS, may well land with voters for whom the matter of who initially paid an invoice for renovation works to a posh flat may seem particularly abstract, particularly at a time of national crisis.