Saturday, December 4News That Matters

PM sleaze claims not sticking outside Westminster bubble – for now

It’s 10 days out from the May elections, but while the prime minister is out and about the country – popping up in Wales on Monday – he can’t get out from under the avalanches of damaging leaks and revelations engulfing him and his top team.

He was forced to deny on camera explosive claims made in the Daily Mail that he had said he would rather bodies “piled high in their thousands” than order a third COVID lockdown, shortly after agreeing to a second lockdown last October.

It is perhaps the most incendiary briefing against the prime minister in a stream of allegations – all denied – about his handling of the COVID crisis; his handling of internal leak inquiries in Number 10 and his handling over payments for his redecoration of the Number 10 flat, which Dominic Cummings described as “unethical, foolish and possibly illegal – and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.

Mr Johnson has since met the cost of the renovations, but it is not clear whether the money originally came from another source – a leaked email in the Daily Mail suggested the Tories used £58,000 of donated party funds – for the refit. No donation has been declared to the Electoral Commission nor has it been declared in the register of ministerial interests.

Dominic Cummings
Image: Mr Cummings’s allegations don’t appear to have yet cut through beyond Westminster

The prime minister insisted on Monday that the “stuff” being pored over and gossiped about in Westminster is “not what’s actually coming up on the doorstep or the issues being raised with me”.

But unfortunately for him, this psychodrama being played out between two friends turned foes is far more than just a political soap opera, it raises substantive issues about Mr Johnson’s Number 10 that are potentially damaging and dangerous to his leadership.

Because Mr Cummings’s accusations raise serious questions around the ethics, conduct and culture of Mr Johnson’s government.

More from Boris Johnson

His allegations around the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat have got some MPs worried – “if anything gets him, it’ll be the wallpaper” said one today – and ensured that what was meant to be kept behind the black door of Number 10 is now subject to full, and possibly damaging, public scrutiny.

Number 10 Downing Street
Image: Claims over the redecoration of Mr Johnson’s flat have caused a stir

But it is also Mr Cummings’s public criticisms around the prime minister’s handling of the COVID crisis, and his promise to give evidence and publish all his correspondence that will alarm Mr Johnson.

Mr Cummings pushed the prime minister for a harder lockdown last autumn and has also publicly suggested the government was too slow to shut down borders last year. The incendiary claim that Mr Johnson allegedly said he’d rather the bodies pile high in their thousands is perhaps a taster of what is to come.

The big question is to what extent will these interventions by Mr Cummings cut through?

MPs tell me that the former senior adviser’s Barnard Castle excursion has real cut through, with their postbags filling up with angry emails and letters from members of the public. So far, the sleaze being slung at the prime minister from his new adversary isn’t really sticking beyond the Westminster bubble.

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PM denies saying ‘bodies pile high’ comment

But it could change the longer this goes on and should more revelations come out. There are already seven inquiries into the lobbying scandal, and Mr Cummings is due to make a select committee appearance next month. Monday’s slew of allegations suggests the leaking won’t stop.

It is undoubtedly, says one of the prime minister’s old allies, going to be a very tricky few weeks for Mr Johnson.

It is also uncomfortable for his ministers and MPs who want to be out on the doorstep talking about the vaccination programme rather than being asked endlessly about leaks and revelations.

For now, Tory MPs are holding their noses and looking the other way. But it is true too that the party has backed Boris Johnson and put up with this scandals because he’s been a vote winner.

As one senior MP told me on Monday: “The Conservative Party’s relationship with Boris is very transactional. He wins us elections and we put up with his crap. If he starts being a vote loser, well that will change.”

With the May elections 10 days away, watch out for not just how Mr Johnson does battling against the barrage from Mr Cummings, but how he does on 6 May in the Hartlepool by-election, and the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoral races.

Success at the ballot box will buy him political breathing space. But as for the substance of the allegations made against him in recent days, those will have to be answered and it could cost him in the longer run.

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Vote 2021: Deputy political editor Sam Coates has a closer look at May’s elections.