Thursday 29 April 2021 2:15 pm

Boris Johnson's nothing to see here attitude is more damning than the decor of Downing Street

Who would want an entire flat decked out in wallpaper which makes it feel like you’ve fallen right down the rabbit hole and drunk the bottle which turns everything into a nightmarish land of geometric shapes?

Who would want to be forced to pay for that themselves?

Boris Johnson’s lavish spending is questionable on all fronts, design questions and class-rows over John Lewis aside. This morning, the PM woke up to a battering over the “cash-for-cushions” scandal, after refusing to answer who had initially forked out the £58,000 for a makeover of his Downing Street flat.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, who drew the short straw and faced the broadcast round this morning, pursued a strategy straight out of Johnson’s ‘How to survive a political storm for dummies’ textbook.

The taxpayer didn’t pay for it, so we shouldn’t be talking about it, and no one should care anyway, Mr Zahawi insisted. All we care about is levelling up. All we care about is the local elections. Why doesn’t Keir Starmer care about the local elections?

There is a problem with this kind of political gaslighting. While Johnson did eventually stump up the £58,000 to refurbish his flat, the sheer amount of time and energy spent having the argument, costs the taxpayer money.

Read more: Pressure builds on Boris Johnson over £58,000 flat refurbishment costs

Wasted time is wasted money. The Electoral Commission has launched an inquiry into who paid the initial bill, prompted by concerns whoever paid for it could have effectively bought influence within Government. Electoral Commission inquiries can take years and will all come out of the Commission’s £18.4million taxpayer funded budget.

The inquiry could demand to see a litany of evidence. Emails, texts and other correspondence, all of which will need to be painstakingly collated.

Currently, the investigation only covers CCHQ, so the resources should understandably come out of the Conservative Party budget, not taxpayers. But, we would be kidding ourselves if we think there is not a handful of Downing Street aides spending time on this.

Accountability is a worthwhile expense and the Commission will hopefully sing for its supper. But all of these resources are being spent because Johnson won’t hand over the answers to a relatively simple question: who paid the first bill? While his ministers’ whittle away the time demanding we shouldn’t care about this, because the taxpayer didn’t pay for it, taxpayers are paying for it.

This strategy of insisting nobody cares, pushing on, and pretending it never happened is tried and tested within Johnson’s Government. Gavin Williamson has survived, against all odds, every badly bungled decision he ever made. Ministers leapt to the defence of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham in the height of lockdown, stressing no rules had been broken.

Read more: Boris Johnson claims no rules broken in flat refurb as Electoral Commission launches probe

Mr Johnson’s nothing-to-see-here platitudes only work if there really is nothing to see.

It is true voters care more about the quality of their kids’ education or a strong economy than the colour of the walls in Downing Street. The downfall of Boris Johnson is unlikely to come on the heels of overpriced bed linen. But getting away with it does not excuse bad behaviour. The measure of good government, after all, is not simply winning a popularity contest – it’s about being a good government.

This makes the pursuit of a “it didn’t cost the taxpayer, so it shouldn’t matter” attitude all the more damning. It says: as long as it doesn’t hit us in the polls, we won’t be transparent. It is the difference between not cheating in a test because it is wrong and not cheating because you might get caught.

It will be a difficult storm to weather if it turns out the refurbishment had been paid for by a donor who also holds a valuable Government contract. But the PM runs the risk of stoking a bigger maelstrom if the truth has to be dragged from him kicking and screaming, costing more time and more money than the new decor ever would have.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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