Boris Johnson was under siege last night as questions mounted over his personal conduct in a string of controversies.
Fresh sources came forward to confirm he had made a crass comment about lockdown deaths – even as he tried to deny it.
In a second blow, he was facing further questions about the lavish redecoration of his flat after it emerged that the Conservative Party settled a £58,000 bill last summer.
Whitehall sources suggested the Prime Minister, who has now paid the bill himself, may be forced to formally declare the loan over the coming days.
Boris Johnson was under siege last night as questions mounted over his personal conduct in a string of controversies
In a further setback it was revealed that he had texted Dominic Cummings last year to exonerate him over the notorious ‘chatty rat’ leak inquiry – undermining Downing Street’s claims that the former aide was behind a string of damaging disclosures.
Ministers tried to play down yesterday’s explosive revelation in the Daily Mail that Mr Johnson had allegedly raged at officials that he would rather see ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown.
But the Mail’s story was confirmed by both the BBC and ITV, citing their own sources. In a terse denial yesterday, Mr Johnson said he had not uttered the words. Asked if he made the comments, Mr Johnson told reporters in Wrexham: ‘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.’
In the Commons Michael Gove said it was ‘incredible’ to suggest the Prime Minister would have used such language and fellow minister Nadine Dorries branded it a ‘lie’.
But ITV political editor Robert Peston said two eyewitnesses, neither of whom had spoken to the Mail, confirmed that Mr Johnson had made the outburst following a tense meeting to agree the second lockdown in October last year.
In the Commons Michael Gove said it was ‘incredible’ to suggest the Prime Minister would have used such language and fellow minister Nadine Dorries branded it a ‘lie’
News of the Covid clampdown was leaked to the Mail last October just hours after the decision was taken. The leak infuriated the PM who told the Cabinet Office to launch an investigation to hunt down the so-called ‘chatty rat’ who leaked it.
Last week, Mr Johnson ordered an extraordinary briefing war against Mr Cummings, in which his former aide was accused of being behind the leak.
The former Vote Leave chief responded with an explosive 1,100-word statement in which he said both the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had exonerated him of involvement. Mr Case did not dispute this claim yesterday. But he denied Mr Cummings’s allegation that Mr Johnson had tried to block the investigation after learning that a close friend of his fiancée Carrie Symonds had been implicated.
He told MPs it was ‘probable’ that investigators would never be able to determine who leaked the story, despite bringing in MI5 to help track the mobile phone data of senior ministers and officials.
In a further setback it was revealed that he had texted Dominic Cummings last year to exonerate him over the notorious ‘chatty rat’ leak inquiry – undermining Downing Street’s claims that the former aide was behind a string of damaging disclosures
Mr Case was earlier left squirming as he tried to duck questions from MPs over who paid for the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat in 11 Downing Street.
Britain’s most senior civil servant refused to say whether political donations had been accepted to help settle the bill for the redecoration overseen by eco-designer Lulu Lytle last year.
He confirmed revelations in the Mail that Mr Johnson had sought to establish a new charitable trust overseen by Tory donor Lord Brownlow to pay for the upkeep of the flat. But he said it was now clear that a charitable trust could not be used to renovate private areas of No 10, leaving Mr Johnson to pick up the bill.
Mr Case claimed he could not comment further because he was now leading a new review of the issue for the Prime Minister – prompting former shadow chancellor John McDonnell to describe his evidence as a ‘badly scripted version of Yes, Minister’.
In emails revealed by the Mail last week Lord Brownlow said he had given the Conservative Party £58,000 to cover payments ‘the party has already made’.
In a second blow, he was facing further questions about the lavish redecoration of his flat after it emerged that the Conservative Party settled a £58,000 bill last summer. Whitehall sources suggested the Prime Minister, who has now paid the bill himself, may be forced to formally declare the loan over the coming days. Pictured: A design by Lulu Lytle
The Cabinet Office told Parliament on Friday that Mr Johnson had now settled the bill himself. A senior Tory told the Mail he had had to take out a personal loan to cover it.
Whitehall sources last night suggested that the Prime Minister would declare the financial support he received in the next register of ministerial interests, which could come as soon as this week.
But Labour yesterday stepped up calls for a full inquiry by the Electoral Commission. Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was time for ‘a full and transparent investigation into everything going on’ in No 10.
The allegations of sleaze and cronyism may now be having an impact, with an Ipsos Mori poll for the London Evening Standard showing Tory support has fallen by five points in a month. The poll put them on 40 per cent, three points in front of Labour.
PM: No, I didn’t make ‘bodies’ remark. BBC & ITV: But we have sources who say the Mail story is right
By Daniel Martin Policy Editor for the Daily Mail
The political editors of the BBC and ITV yesterday corroborated Boris Johnson’s alleged remarks over the coronavirus death toll.
The Mail had reported that after reluctantly agreeing to a second national lockdown, the Prime Minister had apparently said he would rather see ‘the bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third round of curbs.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, joined ministers taking to the airwaves yesterday to insist the reports were untrue.
Mr Johnson himself went before TV cameras to issue a flat denial, saying the claims were ‘total, total rubbish’.
The political editors of the BBC and ITV yesterday corroborated Boris Johnson’s (pictured) alleged remarks over the coronavirus death toll
But the two respected political editors of the BBC and ITV – Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston – both reported yesterday afternoon that they had heard the same allegations of Mr Johnson’s comments from their own sources.
Later, in the Commons, Michael Gove declined to completely reject the reports, saying only that it was ‘incredible’ to suggest that the Prime Minister could have said such a thing. The Cabinet Office Minister insisted he was not in the meeting room when the alleged comment was made.
It is understood, however, that the remark was made in the Prime Minister’s study.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer yesterday said he was ‘astonished’ by the reports.
He added: ‘Everybody would be deeply concerned, not least all those families who have lost someone in the pandemic.’
In the afternoon, Mr Gove (pictured) told MPs he ‘never heard language of that kind’ in the meeting where Mr Johnson ordered the second shutdown in England. He also said: ‘The idea that he would say any such thing, I find incredible. I was in that room. I never heard language of that kind’
Sources told the Mail that Mr Johnson resisted a second lockdown last October even as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Mr Gove argued it was necessary. When he finally agreed to new restrictions after Mr Gove warned him that soldiers would otherwise have to be deployed to protect overwhelmed hospitals, he is alleged to have said: ‘No more f***ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.’
Asked yesterday if he made the comments, Mr Johnson told reporters in Wrexham: ‘Total, total rubbish.
‘What I certainly think is that this country has done an amazing job with the lockdowns. And they’ve been very difficult. And they’ve been very tough for people. And there’s no question about that.’
He insisted the ‘stuff that people are talking about’ in Westminster were not issues being raised on the doorstep ahead of the May 6 elections. The Prime Minister added: ‘Nobody wants to go into a lockdown but they’ve helped us. The discipline the public has shown has helped us to get the numbers of cases down very considerably.’
However, the Mail’s report was later backed up by the BBC, which said it had been told so by sources familiar with the conversation.
Miss Kuenssberg said that at the time, Mr Johnson was reported to have had big concerns about the implications of another lockdown on the economy and non-Covid related health issues.
But the two respected political editors of the BBC and ITV – Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston – both reported yesterday afternoon that they had heard the same allegations of Mr Johnson’s comments from their own sources
‘This does take us back to that moment and back to the very serious claims made by some people who were involved in the decision making – including some ministers – that the hesitancy around the second lockdown did cost lives,’ she said.
Mr Peston also said that he was told Mr Johnson shouted the phrase in his study after he agreed to the second lockdown ‘in a rage’. He said he was told that the doors to the Cabinet room and outer office were allegedly open, meaning that a number of people heard. Yesterday morning, Mr Wallace said the ‘bodies’ allegation was ‘ludicrous’ and that anonymous briefing had reached ‘the comedy chapter now of these gossip stories’.
‘The Prime Minister has been utterly focused on delivering, alongside Cabinet colleagues, the response to Covid,’ he said.
In the afternoon, Mr Gove told MPs he ‘never heard language of that kind’ in the meeting where Mr Johnson ordered the second shutdown in England. ‘I was in the meeting that afternoon, with the Prime Minister and other ministers, as we looked at what was happening with the virus and with the pandemic,’ he said. ‘We were dealing with one of the most serious decisions that this Prime Minister and any government have had to face. People have been pointing out, quite rightly, that tens of thousands of people were dying.
‘The Prime Minister made a decision in that meeting to trigger a second lockdown. He made a subsequent decision to trigger a third lockdown. This is a Prime Minister who was in hospital himself, in intensive care.
‘The idea that he would say any such thing, I find incredible. I was in that room. I never heard language of that kind.’
Mr Gove added: ‘These decisions are never easy, but the Government made the decision, and the Prime Minister made the decision, to have a second and third lockdown, and I think we can see the evidence of the leadership that he showed.’
Nadine Dorries, the mental health minister, said the quote claim was a lie – ‘not one named source or substantiated fact’. She tweeted that it was ‘vexatious coordinated gossip given in order to negatively influence the outcome’ of the May elections.
Mr Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson said the Prime Minister ‘may well have’ made the ‘tasteless’ remark about allowing dead bodies to pile up but suggested the row would not damage him.
Mr Gimson told Sky News: ‘In some ways it will strengthen his reputation as a man who talks as a man in the pub would, not in the prissy way that some members of the political class think one should always talk about terrible things like the pandemic.’
Last night sources close to Mr Gove said he was very clear the PM did not say the alleged remark.