Boris Johnson was accused on Saturday by a former attorney-general of being a “vacuum of integrity,” as Conservative donors expressed concerns about new accusations about the prime minister’s conduct.
The criticism by Dominic Grieve, former Tory attorney-general, followed a searing attack on Johnson by the prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, who accused him of falling “far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”.
Grieve focused on Cummings allegation that Johnson wanted donors to “secretly pay for the renovation” of his Number 10 Downing Street flat, with Labour now demanding to see all correspondence relating to the work.
The former attorney-general said it was “just one illustration of the chaos Mr Johnson seems to bring in his wake”.
Grieve, who was thrown out of the Tory party in 2019 by Johnson over his views on Brexit, told the BBC Today programme the prime minister was “a vacuum of integrity”.
Downing Street insists all rules were observed over the refurbishment work, overseen by Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds, and “all reportable donations are transparently declared and published”.
On Friday the government said that “costs of wider refurbishment in this year have been met by the prime minister personally.”
The Labour party has asked for a full investigation. Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow communities secretary, said: “We don’t know how much was spent or whether a donor got anything in return.”
Cummings said in a blog on Friday that he had told Johnson that “his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.
Cummings published the blog after claims by Downing Street that he had been responsible for a series of leaks. Johnson and the mastermind of his 2016 Brexit victory and the 2019 Tory election win are now locked in a public stand-off.
The prime minister has most to lose if his former adviser continues to level accusations — backed up by text or email evidence — about what happened between Cummings’ arrival in Downing Street in July 2019 and his effective sacking in November 2020.
Downing Street’s surprise decision on Friday to pick a fight with Cummings — identifying him as an alleged leaker — has created an asymmetric fight between a former adviser with plenty of secrets to tell and little to lose and the holder of the highest office in the land.
One senior party figure said, “Boris can’t possibly win this fight so why did he start? They should have risen above it and ignored Dom. Now we’re going to have weeks of ‘he said, she said’.”
Another of the party’s financial backers warned: “This could spiral out of control very quickly. We don’t need this just as we’re entering into crucial local elections”. Downing Street tried to douse the row on Friday night, but the damage had already been done.
Ever since Cummings’ departure from No 10 in November, Johnson has been concerned about what his former chief aide might do. In recent weeks, private efforts at rapprochement have taken place unsuccessfully.
Ben Elliot, co-chair of the Tory party, was designated to speak to Cummings to broker peace and stem leaks of damaging revelations about Johnson and his Downing Street operation.
According to one Tory official with knowledge of the situation, Elliot’s efforts failed to win around the former aide. “Ben exchanged a whole series of texts with Dom trying to get him back on side. Instead he just threatened to blow it all up,” the person said.
Two principal dangers stand out. The first is that Cummings provides more details of Johnson overriding political conventions or allegedly breaking the rules.
Johnson suspended parliament in 2019 during the Brexit crisis — a move overturned by the Supreme Court — and said he was willing to break international law over Brexit in 2020.
His convincing election victory and the Conservative party’s big opinion poll lead over Labour may suggest that the public is not overly concerned. On Friday he said the public did not “give a monkeys” about who was leaking government secrets.
The second danger is that Cummings, who will give evidence to MPs next month over the government’s handling of Covid, will lift the lid on allegedly weak leadership by Johnson at the height of the crisis.
The leaking of plans for a second national lockdown last November was seen by some as an attempt to ensure that Johnson — who had provisionally agreed to the move on October 30 — did not change his mind.
Cummings insists he was not the leaker, claiming that it was Henry Newman, a Number 10 adviser and ally of Michael Gove. Downing Street officials have insisted that Cummings was responsible for the leak.
Both Cummings and Newman wanted the lockdown and the episode suggests somebody feared Johnson would lose his nerve. “He’s well known to have wobbled before,” said one senior Tory.
Meanwhile Johnson’s special envoy for the Gulf, Lord Udny-Lister, is leaving his role and departing the government, a Downing Street spokesman said in an emailed statement late on Friday.
Udny-Lister’s departure, first reported by the Daily Telegraph, follows a series of revelations about the adviser’s links with the private sector while working for the government.
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