The Speaker
Sunday, 19 May 2024 – 17:45
Image Credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor (CC BY 3.0)

‘Major Sleaze’ – A heated session of PMQs that left questions unanswered

Wednesday saw another heated debate in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister faced questions over alleged sleaze.

It was a tricky Prime Minister’s Questions for Boris Johnson, with the PM facing growing questions in recent days over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, and comments he is alleged to have made regarding lockdown last year.

Kicking off his questioning of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer quoted reports in which the Prime Minister is alleged to have said in the Autumn that he would rather see ‘bodies pile high’ than implement another lockdown. Starmer asked the PM if he could tell MPs ‘categorically’ whether or not he had made the comments, or comments to similar effect.

The Prime Minister replied with ‘No’ and said that Starmer should substantiate and provide evidence supporting the allegations if he was to repeat them. The Prime Minister added that the lockdown was a ‘tough decision’ and said it was because of the lockdown that the country had made significant progress in tackling the virus.

In recent days, multiple media outlets have reported the alleged comments, saying they had multiple sources for them. Responding to the Prime Minister’s dismissal of the allegations, Starmer said that someone wasn’t telling the truth, adding “The Ministerial Code says ‘Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.’ I’ll leave it there for now.”

Later in PMQs, the Prime Minister faced yet more questions on the reported comments, this time from SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford who asked “Are you a liar Prime Minister?”. Mr Johnson repeated his earlier answer, saying he had not made the comments.

Another, if not the main topic of Prime Minister’s Questions this week, was around the refurbishments of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat and who paid for them. Earlier on Wednesday, a formal investigation was launched by the Electoral Commission to look at whether transactions related to works were properly reported. 

The investigation was launched with the independent regulator saying there were ‘reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred’. In a blog post published last week by Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, it was indicated that the PM may have planned to have ‘donors secretly pay for the renovation’, which if true, would cause ethical and potentially legal issues.

Asked about the refurbishments during PMQs, Mr Johnson said “I have covered the costs. I have met the requirements that I’ve been obliged to meet in full. He [Keir Starmer] goes on and on about wallpaper when I’ve told him umpteen times now, I paid for it”.

The wording of the Prime Minister’s answer left some ambiguity though, with it not being clear whether he initially paid the costs, or whether donors could have provided some form of funding for the initial costs, as has been suggested in multiple media reports.

Heated exchanges continued in the Commons on the topic for several minutes, with Mr Johnson looking visibly angry at points. Keir Starmer labelled the Primer Minister ‘Major Sleaze’, saying “Dodgy contracts, jobs for their mates and cash for access – and who is at heart of it? The Prime Minister, Major Sleaze sitting there”.

The PM argued that Starmer should have been asking questions on higher priorities, such as the pandemic. Many might agree, but given the coverage and type of issues at play here, it’s difficult to imagine a situation in where a Leader of the Opposition would have asked different questions. Mr Johnson was accused of failing to answer questions, not for the first time.

There are indeed questions still about surrounding the Prime Minister’s flat, alleged lockdown comments and more. In a time where the Government has also been accused of unethical behaviour over COVID contracts, it was a tricky session for the Prime Minister.

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