Boris Johnson said on Thursday he would be willing to comply with the formal Electoral Commission investigation into whether any rules were broken in the financing of his Downing Street flat renovation, as Labour called for a parliamentary probe into his conduct.
Speaking while on a visit to a school in London, the UK prime minister said he had full confidence in the commission to carry out its inquiry over alleged donations for refurbishing his residence.
But Johnson repeated his insistence that the public was more interested in the fight against coronavirus than the growing number of inquiries that have sprung up over the alleged “sleaze” that the opposition Labour party claims is swirling around Johnson and the ruling Conservatives.
“We will comply with whatever they want and I don’t think there is anything to see here, or to worry about,” he said. “I think what people are focused on overwhelmingly is not that kind of issue, but on what we are doing to take this country through the pandemic.”
His comments came as Margaret Hodge, a senior Labour backbencher, urged parliament’s commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, to investigate whether Johnson breached the MP’s code of conduct over alleged donations linked to the flat renovation.
In a letter, sent on Thursday afternoon, Hodge called for Stone to probe funding of the refurbishment and explore whether Johnson declared any possible donations in the correct manner.
“Boris Johnson’s complete disregard for the rules cannot go unchecked. Any cronyism, sleaze or rule-breaking on his part must be fully investigated,” she tweeted on Thursday.
Stone can refer serious cases to the committee on standards, which has the power to order a temporary suspension of MPs from parliament in extreme circumstances.
The news follows an announcement from the Electoral Commission, who said on Wednesday they were formally investigating the funding of the work on the flat and whether it was properly declared.
A leaked email last week suggested that Tory peer Lord David Brownlow made an undeclared gift of £58,000 earmarked for renovating Johnson’s flat, according to the Daily Mail.
The commission said it had decided to launch a full probe after it was “satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”, having initially made contact with the Conservative party in March.
The investigation is one of three inquiries exploring how money was spent on the flat renovation. But unlike the other two probes ordered by Downing Street — one by the new independent adviser on ministerial interests Lord Christopher Geidt and the other by cabinet secretary Simon Case — the commission’s investigation is truly independent, according to experts.
They said that it was the commission’s legal powers — which allow it to demand documents, as well as texts and emails, and interview people under caution — that set it apart.
In contrast, after Johnson refused to commit to publish Geidt’s findings in full, Labour argued that the new role of adviser on ministerial interests was pointless because it had no real powers.
As the regulator of elections and political financing, the commission has the power to impose fines and, if it believes a criminal offence has been committed, pass the case on to the police.
“The Electoral Commission is investigating offences against the law and doing so in a formal, legal context as a regulator with the power to impose penalties”, explained David Howarth, a Cambridge university professor and former member of the commission.
“This is completely different from investigations by two people who could be fired by Boris Johnson and have no legal standing at all and no legal powers”.
The length of the investigation will be determined by how co-operative individuals being investigated are and the complexity of the case, Howarth added. He said the commission was known for its “methodical, careful processes”.
Lord John Horam, a conservative life peer and former member of the commission, said the regulator’s independence was key for it to be able to carry out its work. Commissioners are nominated by a cross-party group of MPs and approved by the House of Commons.
“It is completely independent and accountable to parliament — it reports to the Speaker of the House”, he said.
Some senior members of the Conservative party take a different view of the commission given its recent history of investigations.
In 2017, the party was fined £70,000 by the commission over spending in the 2015 general election and some earlier by-elections but a subsequent police probe into criminal wrongdoing was dropped.
More recently, the regulator upset many Tories over its handling of the investigation into the financing of the Vote Leave campaign, which included prominent Conservatives on its advisory panel, including Johnson.
The commission fined the group £61,000 in 2018 but later had to drop the £20,000 fine it imposed on Darren Grimes, who led a separate campaign group. The probe also triggered a police investigation, which was dropped in May last year.
Writing in the Telegraph a few months later, Conservative co-chair Amanda Milling called for an overhaul of the independent body, arguing that it was “unaccountable, with little outside challenge or scrutiny over its decisions”.
This sentiment was echoed by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg who told Parliament that the commission was “in need of serious reform”.
One Conservative backbencher labelled the commission “incompetent”, adding: “The one organisation that shouldn’t be investigating anything is the Electoral Commission and the sooner it is abolished the better.”
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