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Boris Johnson's refurb row highlights the need to tighten ministerial rules

Full disclosure of Boris Johnson's decor bill must be followed by government moves to firm up ministerial rules

Full disclosure of Boris Johnson's decor bill must be followed by government moves to firm up ministerial rules, writes Bronwen Maddox

Of all the rows swirling around the prime minister, the one about his redecoration of his Downing Street flat has the potential to do real damage. Like the controversies over his government’s treatment of lobbying, it is a case where observing the rules that exist and acting with more transparency would go a long way to answer concerns. There is, though, a case for tightening the rules as well.

The government needs to make a full disclosure about who paid what and when

The heart of the charges is that Boris Johnson sought to use a party donation to help pay for refurbishment of the flat above No.11 Downing Street, the larger of the two Downing Street flats and the one where he (like David Cameron and Theresa May) has chosen to live. From what we know there does not seem to have been any law broken by the Conservative Party in paying for the refurbishment. It appears, too, that the prime minister has now personally covered the costs that exceeded his £30,000 annual maintenance and redecoration allowance. But if the prime minister received at any point a loan for personal purposes from the party – the loan itself perhaps funded by a donation to the party for that purpose – then it opens him to the suggestion that he has benefited from this donation and could be influenced by the person making it.

The rules exist to require transparency about things which open ministers to such suggestions. The payment needs to be declared under the requirements of the Ministerial Code and the rules all MPs need to follow when publishing their personal interests. Such rules already exist; the problem is that there is little ability to enforce them. The government now needs to make a full disclosure about who paid what and when. But beyond that, there is a case that – in particular – the ministerial rules themselves should be tightened, with shorter deadlines for disclosure and clearer sanctions for failing to meet them.

The prime minister should fill the post of independent adviser on ministerial interests

The elements that may damage the prime minister go beyond an alleged breach of code, of course. If this episode hurts him, it will be because it bolsters an impression of untrustworthiness and of casualness that the Lex Greensill lobbying affair and other recent disclosures have fanned. After a year when many people have lost relatives and friends to the virus or lost their jobs and struggled to support themselves, revelations that the prime minister’s girlfriend has recruited a designer to overhaul the flat, spending tens of thousands of pounds, will seem graceless.

There are good questions about whether more of the prime minister’s expenses of living in Downing Street should be covered by taxpayers. As head of government but not head of state, the prime minister enjoys little of the pomp and ceremony – and spending – that goes to support many of his counterparts. Raising the pay or expenses of politicians is never a popular cause, one reason why this is perpetually neglected. But if it is to be raised, it would be best done by a cross-party group in parliament, drawing on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority’s expertise and international comparisons – and not in the heat of a furore about a current case.

The government’s response to this row should begin with full transparency on the prime minister’s recent spending and a commitment to abide by the rules that exist. It should consider tightening the time period for disclosure too. But beyond that, the prime minister should appoint an independent adviser for ministers on conflicts of interest and disclosure requirements as soon as possible. The cabinet secretary cannot handle this and the rest of his job; he is one watchdog for the propriety of the prime minister’s actions but cannot be the only one. A truly independent adviser on ministerial interests would now be in the prime minister’s interest – even if it does not, right at this moment, feel that way to him.

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