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Boris Johnson’s Troubles Grow as U.K. Government Battles Sleaze Claims

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 4/27/2021 Tim Ross and Alex Morales

(Bloomberg) -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing mounting pressure over the way he operates at the top of the government, as the row over allegations of sleaze and incompetence intensifies.

The U.K. leader denied a claim that he’d said privately he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order a third pandemic lockdown. But the BBC, ITV, and the Daily Mail all carried versions of the same story stating that he had.

Tuesday’s British newspapers contained further reports on similar themes, with The Times suggesting the premier would rather let Covid “rip” than close the economy again.

In another difficult 24 hours for the British leader:

The government’s most senior civil servant announced a review of how the refit of Johnson’s official Downing Street apartment was paid forITV reported that the Conservative Party had loaned Johnson the funds to refurbish his residence, which he then paid back. It would be a highly unusual arrangement that, if confirmed, is likely to lead to more criticism of the premier’s judgmentTop government officials questioned why Greensill Capital founder Lex Greensill was given such sweeping access at the heart of David Cameron’s administration. Boris Johnson et al. holding wine glasses: Boris Johnson Wales GETTY sub © Photographer: Phil Noble/WPA Pool/Getty Images Boris Johnson Wales GETTY sub

Boris Johnson campaigns in Llandudno, Wales on April 26.

Photographer: Phil Noble/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Elections

For Johnson, the stakes are getting higher. The U.K. holds elections in London, Scotland and other key battlegrounds on May 6 and a steady flow of headlines about government sleaze and cronyism could sway voters away from his Conservative Party. For now, Johnson’s Tories remain ahead in opinion polls and are riding a wave of public support from the successful rollout of Covid vaccines.

“I genuinely believe people are just more interested in getting on with their daily lives,” Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told Sky News. “While we’re trying to get through with tackling the virus, I don’t think the majority of the British public are interested in some wallpapers or sofas.”

The catalyst for the latest burst of allegations was a 1,000-word blog post Friday by Johnson’s former senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, who attacked the premier’s integrity and competence.

Boris Johnson Faces Barrage of Criticism by Ex-Aide Cummings

Johnson and his ministers have been fending off questions from the media and lawmakers about Cummings’s comments ever since.

On Monday, the U.K.’s most senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry looking into some of the claims. He had few answers for the members of Parliament who were grilling him about the premier’s conduct.

An official leak investigation is unlikely to discover who revealed details of the government’s plan to impose a second pandemic lockdown on England in October, he said.

Leak

“Given the time that has now passed, I think that it is probable that the team will not successfully identify the source or sources,” he told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Case added that the prime minister had also asked him to “review” the way the 10 Downing Street apartment refurbishment was paid for and to report back. Cummings said the premier had planned to get a Tory donor to fund the work.

Earlier, Johnson denied saying he’d rather see bodies piled up than go into a third lockdown, answering “no” when asked in a pooled television interview during a campaign visit to Wales whether he had said it.

“No, but again, the important thing that people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work,” Johnson said. Asked whether he’d discussed using donations to pay for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, he said “if there’s anything to be said about that, any declaration to be made, that will of course be made in due course.”

Johnson’s office said the premier had personally paid for the wider refurbishment. The government is right to examine whether the maintenance of historically significant buildings should be funded by taxpayers or by an independent trust, a spokesman for the premier said.

(Updates with Coffey comment in sixth paragraph.)

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