Boris Johnson: from Brexit hero to 'vacuum of integrity'
London, United Kingdom: Boris Johnson has faced unprecedented pressure from Brexit and the coronavirus outbreak since he became British prime minister in 2019. But he is again under scrutiny about revelations of lavish spending on his official apartment.
Questions about who paid for the Downing Street refurbishment have focused opposition attacks on the Conservative prime minister's long history of mendacity, and his casual approach to ethics in public and private life.
While Johnson looks to political heroes such as Winston Churchill, portraying himself as a man of destiny who "got Brexit done", former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve described him as a "vacuum of integrity" over the flat revamp.
A colorful ex-journalist, Johnson has a long trail of contentious remarks in print, attacking women, gays, black people, and Muslims.
But the electorate has so far given him a pass.
However, his opponents hope "wallpaper-gate" will finally turn voters off heading into local elections on May 6, accusing Johnson of an arrogant disdain while tens of thousands of families grieve loved ones lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
The prime minister is counting instead on his innate optimism resonating with voters, after successively steering Britain through a mass vaccination program and on to the "sunlit uplands" of future recovery.
And he wants to be known as the leader who ended years of political paralysis and decisively cut Britain's ties to the European Union, even if Brexit continues to provoke economic dislocation.
Late last year, Johnson was in a celebratory mood as he fended off a BBC interviewer's insistence that Britain now faces problematic trade-offs in its future relationship with Europe.
Critics had said "you couldn't have free trade with the EU unless you conformed with the EU's laws (and) that that was having your cake and eating it", Johnson said.
"That has turned out not to be true," he added, after agreeing on a trade treaty with Brussels. "I want you to see that this is a cake treaty."
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964, and his sister said as a child he wanted to be "world king".
He spent part of his childhood in the EU capital, where his father Stanley worked for the European Commission, and later attended the elite Eton school in England before studying Classics at Oxford University.
In his biography "Boris Johnson: The Gambler", released last October, journalist Tom Bower recounts the serial womanizing that put paid to Johnson's two marriages and his relaxed relationship with the truth.
Johnson is believed to have at least six children, including a baby boy with his fiancee Carrie Symonds, 33.
He first worked as a journalist for The Times, where he was sacked for making up a quote, and moved on to become Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
There he made his name by writing "Euro-myths" -- exaggerated claims about the EU such as purported plans to standardize the sizes of condoms and bananas.
Johnson then entered politics but in 2004, he was sacked from the Conservatives' shadow cabinet for lying about an extra-marital affair.
He rallied to become mayor of Labour-voting, staunchly pro-European London in 2008, an achievement commentators put down to his brazen refusal to respect convention.
Johnson felt torn about which way to leap in Britain's 2016 Brexit referendum, famously drawing up a list of pros and cons for EU membership before throwing his political charisma behind the "leave" campaign.
Johnson's popularity, and propensity for exaggeration, helped swing the bitterly divisive campaign, and he intervened in July 2019 to end the subsequent political paralysis by seizing control of the Conservative party from Theresa May.
After winning a thumping election victory in December 2019, he was diagnosed in March last year with Covid-19 and ended up in intensive care, crediting two immigrant nurses with helping to save his life.
The pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 127,400 other Britons, however, and Johnson stands accused of dodging hard choices after a long run of policy U-turns.
But on Brexit, he stuck to a hardline vision.
In 2018, he quit his role as foreign secretary under May over her Brexit plan, which sought to keep Britain in the EU's regulatory orbit as the price of economic stability.
When she resigned after failing three times to get her EU divorce deal through parliament, Johnson took over. Within six months he had renegotiated the deal, won an election, and taken Britain out of the EU.
"Those who did not take him seriously were wrong," French President Emmanuel Macron said at the time. But he also accused Brexiteers of indulging in "lies and false promises".
'Cash for curtains' crisis pulls open funding questions
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds are facing questions over their expensive taste in home decor. But how did "wallpaper-gate" spread into a political scandal that could yet involve the police?
How did it start?
Johnson, Symonds and their baby son live in quarters above Number 11 Downing Street, which are more spacious than those attached to Number 10, where the prime minister's offices are located.
Most of the historic estate is maintained with public money, but every prime minister gets an annual allowance of £30,000 ($42,000, 35,000 euros) to redecorate the living space.
It's been known for months that Johnson and Symonds were busy on a luxury makeover, but questions have mounted over who was footing the bill -- reportedly as high as £200,000 -- in an affair known variously as "wallpaper-gate" or "cash for curtains".
The return of Cummings
In an incendiary blog post last week, Johnson's former top aide Dominic Cummings wrote that he had warned Johnson against plans to use party funds to "secretly pay" for the renovation in an "unethical, foolish, possibly illegal" way.
It was the first time the leading Brexiteer had returned to the public eye since a Downing Street feud last year involving Symonds, who is herself a Conservative Party insider.
Johnson insists he has himself covered costs of the refurbishment exceeding the £30,000 allowance.
But during a stormy session of questions in parliament on Wednesday, he repeatedly refused to clarify where the money came from initially.
Follow the money
Britain's top-ranking civil servant Simon Case revealed on Monday that during the height of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Johnson instructed staff to look into setting up a White House-style charitable trust for Downing Street.
Conservative Party donor David Brownlow was designated as chairman.
In a leaked email from last October, Brownlow confirmed that he had paid £58,000 into party coffers, "to cover the payments the party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed 'Downing Street trust'".
Although it could be seen as a political donation, the payment was never declared to the Electoral Commission.
The watchdog, which regulates party and election finance, on Wednesday launched a formal investigation after finding "reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred".
The commission has powers to demand the repayment of questionable donations and levy fines -- or ultimately refer investigations to the police for criminal prosecution.
Two internal probes are also underway, one led by cabinet secretary Case and the other by Johnson's newly appointed adviser on ministerial standards, Christopher Geidt.
Why does it matter?
Aside from any breaches of the law on political donations, opposition parties have seized on the affair to burnish their portrayal of Johnson as a sleazy, untruthful leader in the build-up to local elections on May 6.
Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives are still ahead of Labour and other opposition parties heading into the polls, the first since the pandemic and since Brexit took full effect.
Labour has hammered home that no fewer than three investigations are now ongoing into the Downing Street revamp -- although there is still no official inquiry into why Britain has suffered one of the world's worst death tolls from Covid-19.
During a stormy exchange in the House of Commons Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer pointed out to Johnson that ministers who knowingly mislead parliament are expected to resign.
Geidt is expected to publish a new register of ministers' financial interests, which Downing Street says will cover details of the refurbishment.
But it says Johnson himself will remain the "ultimate arbiter" of whether the ministerial code has been broken -- even if he himself is the target of the investigation.
What's wrong with John Lewis?
Johnson and Symonds reportedly called the decor they inherited from former prime minister Theresa May a "John Lewis furniture nightmare".
For many Britons, the upmarket department store chain is aspirational, rather than something to be sneered at.
But the prime ministerial couple set their sights higher and turned to fashionable interior designer Lulu Lytle, whose company Soane offers bespoke furniture, fabrics, and wallpaper at eye-watering prices.
John Lewis meanwhile has been having fun over the saga.
After Johnson and Starmer clashed in the House of Commons, the retailer tweeted: "Time for an interiors refresh? We pride our Home Design Service on having something for *almost* everyone."