Sleaze allegations expose the outdatedness of PMQs

By Aimee Howard

It was announced this morning by the Electoral Commission – which regulates political and electoral finance – that an official investigation has been launched into how home renovations at the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat were funded.  Suggesting that “there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”, the issue was predictably raised at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, used the opportunity of Prime Minister’s Questions today to ask Johnson repeatedly about the matter and stated that the Conservative party, or the taxpayer, or a donor, anyone but Boris Johnson himself, paid the initial invoice.

Johnson has denied all allegations of impropriety and confirmed he paid for the works. He avoided clarifying whether he received an initial loan or whether he failed to declare any loan. Although his response was expected, financial matters have an audit trail and knowingly misleading Parliament is an offence and Ministers are expected to resign should they do so.

No 10 should start preparing for a potential investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Such an investigation by the Commissioner could lead to Johnson being suspended from the Commons. Other MPs in this situation have then been subject to a recall petition under the Recall of MPs Act. While we are a long way from this, it is a theoretical possibility.

Although the discussion over the Downing Street refurbishments are likely to have been the focus of people’s interest, the flawed structure of PMQs itself was exposed in today’s debate.

The opening question, from Andrea Jenkyns – the Conservative MP for Morley and Outwood – was missed as the presenter was on mute. However, the Prime Minister offered to answer the question regardless, clear evidence of the Whips’ influence in selecting the questions put forward by the party’s MPs and having the answer prepared for the PM.

Indeed, every Conservative backbencher used their question to reference their local constituency or encourage Johnson to publicly state on record their support for the party’s local candidate in May.

Similarly, every Labour MP asking a question had been primed to make similar accusations of sleaze, corruption and lobbying against the Prime Minister – perhaps a missed opportunity to question on other issues including the pandemic, business support schemes and the ‘Brexit deal’, voted through yesterday evening by the European Parliament .

Johnson’s administration now faces at least seven uncomfortable enquiries, and this may only increase, should the ongoing saga around former Special Advisor Dominic Cumming lead to more disclosures.