Cabinet to meet as pressure builds on Boris Johnson amid leakson April 27, 2021 at 6:52 am

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The PM will host a cabinet meeting later, after a series of claims about his comments and conduct.

Boris Johnson in Wrexham, Wales, on Monday

image copyrightGetty Images

Boris Johnson will chair a cabinet meeting later as he attempts to shift the focus from a series of claims and questions over his conduct.

Among them is an accusation the PM once said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than approve a third lockdown.

Mr Johnson and No 10 strongly denied he said the phrase, as the PM described multiple reports as “total rubbish”.

The prime minister is also facing mounting pressure over the cost of redecorating his Downing Street flat.

Downing Street refused to say whether Mr Johnson received a loan from the Conservative Party to pay for renovations, but said any “gifts or benefits” would be declared in the ministerial transparency registers.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Johnson had not explained how the renovation was being funded.

“If he wanted to prove to the country that he has acted entirely above reproach, he should give us that full and frank explanation – but so far he’s refused to do it,” Mr Ashworth said.

Asked about the funding, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told BBC Breakfast: “The only thing I do know is the prime minister has said that he paid for the expenses of redecoration.”

On Monday, the prime minister was asked whether he said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than approve a third lockdown. He responded saying “No, but I think the important thing I think people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work.”

Mr Johnson is expected to use the cabinet meeting to emphasise the importance of ministers focusing on everyday concerns, rather than the noise at Westminster, BBC political correspondent Chris Mason said.

The cabinet meeting will provide an opportunity for senior ministers to wrestle back control of the political agenda after a series of damaging allegations made by Mr Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings last week.

No 10 said the cabinet would be told to focus on “jabs and jobs”.

Labour has called for a full inquiry into the cost and financing of the renovations to Downing Street.

And shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves described Mr Johnson’s alleged comments about bodies piling high as “stomach-churning”.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said the opposition believed the furore was starting to be noticed by voters – and one cabinet minister told her “there’s nothing we can do to control it”.

On Monday, the UK’s top civil servant Simon Case said Mr Johnson had asked him to review how a refurbishment of the No 11 flat was funded – after Mr Cummings alleged the prime minister once planned to have donors “secretly pay” for the revamp.

Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds outside Downing Street

image copyrightPA Media

Senior Conservative backbencher Sir Charles Walker told BBC Two’s Newsnight he “doesn’t really care” about the flat funding issue “as long as my constituents didn’t pay for it”.

Sir Charles, the MP for Broxbourne, added: “I’m not a signed-up member of the Boris Johnson fan club.

“But we are talking about a man that nearly killed himself last year while in office trying to navigate this crisis.

“We’re talking about a man who has delivered the most successful vaccine programme of any major developed country in the world. We’re talking about a man who bent over backwards to get ventilators made… so I’m sorry I can’t really understand [the outrage].”

Mr Case also confirmed a probe was still ongoing into leaks pre-empting the official announcement of a second lockdown in England, but he admitted a culprit for the unauthorised disclosure may never be found.

He also said steps were being taken to tighten the rules around civil servants having second jobs in the wake of a row over the now-collapsed Greensill Capital, which employed ex-PM David Cameron.

Mr Johnson has strongly denied saying last year he would rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into a third lockdown.

The remarks were alleged to have been made last autumn, during a heated discussion in Downing Street – just before the country went into its second lockdown from early November to early December.

Laura Kuenssberg reported that, at the time, the prime minister was said to have had big concerns about the implications of another lockdown on the economy and non-Covid related health issues.

England entered its third lockdown on 6 January.

Following an article in the Daily Mail – which first reported the alleged “bodies” comments – the BBC and ITV separately reported sources as confirming Mr Johnson did make the remarks.

But the prime minister’s spokesman said the reported comments were false, adding: “This is untrue and the PM has denied it… I’m not aware of anyone else making that statement.”

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove defended Mr Johnson, telling the Commons it was “incredible” to think he would have said it, adding: “I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind”.

Ms Reeves urged Mr Johnson to apologise, while bereaved families described the reported comments as “callous”.

Dominic Cummings

image copyrightGetty Images

The latest claims come after a bitter row between Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings – who left Downing Street in December – burst into the open last week.

The former aide published a 1,000-word blog post in response to newspaper articles that claimed he had leaked text messages between the prime minister and businessman Sir James Dyson.

In the blog post, Mr Cummings:

  • denied leaking texts between Mr Johnson and Sir James
  • accused the PM of planning to have donors “secretly pay” for the refurbishment of his flat
  • denied leaking details of November’s second coronavirus lockdown in England
  • claimed Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had cleared Mr Cummings of being the source of the leak
  • alleged Mr Johnson had considered trying to block an inquiry into the leak in case it involved a friend of his fiancee Carrie Symonds.

Mr Cummings suggested he was motivated in part by a desire to see an urgent parliamentary inquiry into the government’s Covid-19 response. He is due to give evidence to MPs on the topic next month.

Former Conservative party leader William Hague warned that Mr Cummings would presumably turn up “armed with audio recordings, screen grabs, email chains and other partial but revealing evidence”.

William Hague in 2015

Mr Hague wrote in an opinion piece for the Times it would be a mistake “to dismiss the latest allegations of sleaze as a fleeting problem” and that a trail of digital evidence “is one of several reasons the government should worry about the latest accusations of impropriety”.

Meanwhile, the Covid situation in the UK has continued to improve, with latest coronavirus data showing the UK recorded 2,064 new cases on Monday, alongside six further deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

A total of 33,752,885 people have now received at least one vaccine dose, while 12,897,123 are now fully vaccinated, the figures showed.

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