LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson “unwisely” permitted the refurbishment of his official Downing Street residence to go ahead without a “more rigorous regard” for its funding, but the British leader did not engage in outright misconduct, an independent report concluded on Friday.
Dubbed “Wallpapergate,” the financing of the designer revamp of Johnson’s four-bedroom apartment has caused much controversy in Britain, with questions raised over who covered the costs and whether the prime minister flouted transparency rules.
Christopher Geidt, a former private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, now serving as the government’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, found that Johnson didn’t break the ministerial code of conduct.
Geidt wrote in his report: “no conflict (or reasonably perceived conflict) arises as a result of these interests.”
But Geidt dinged Johnson for being too nonchalant about the project.
“The prime minister — unwisely, in my view — allowed the refurbishment of the apartment at No 11 Downing Street to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded,” Geidt said.
It is not uncommon for British leaders to spruce up their living quarters when they come into office. But, according to British media reports, the cost of this refurbishment, overseen by Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, was somewhere between $128,000 and $284,000 — much above the public allowance of $43,000.
Johnson previously said he paid for the extra costs personally.
The Daily Mail reported that, among other things, the couple splashed out on gold wallpaper that with today’s exchange rate would amount to $1,200 a roll. (In more recent reports, the same newspaper, citing unnamed sources, said Johnson had to call back specialist decorators because the handcrafted paper was peeling off.)
According to Geidt’s report, the prime minister had expected that a yet-to-be created White House-style trust would cover the costs.
“Under normal circumstances, a Prime Minister might reasonably be expected to be curious about the arrangements, and especially the financial arrangements that led to the refurbishment of his apartment at Downing Street,” Geidt wrote. “In the middle of a pandemic, the current Prime Minister simply accepted that the Trust would be capable of satisfactorily resolving the situation without further interrogation.”
When such a trust had failed to come together, David Brownlow, a member of the House of Lords and a Conservative Party supporter, picked up a chunk of the tab — the report did not disclose how much — apparently without Johnson’s knowledge.
Under Britain’s transparency rules, if Johnson received a loan to cover some of the costs, he would have to declare it.
The report said Johnson learned only in late February, when stories surfaced in the British media, that Brownlow had footed part of the bill in October.
“At that point, the Prime Minister immediately sought the necessary advice about his interests and, as a consequence, settled the full amount himself on 8 March,” it read.
And because Johnson supposedly hadn’t known about the situation earlier, he couldn’t be accused of inappropriate favoritism toward Brownlow.
This isn’t the end of Wallpapergate, which is still subject to a number of probes, including one by the Electoral Commission, Britain’s political spending watchdog, which could issue a fine of up to $28,000.
When the commission launched its investigation last month, it said there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offense or offenses may have occurred.”