Emily Ashton, Tribune News Service
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is battling to get his government back on track amid incendiary claims about his conduct during the pandemic and ongoing rows over lobbying and cronyism.
The Daily Mail reported Monday that the premier said last year he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third lockdown, citing unnamed sources. Johnson’s office “strongly denied” he made the comment, according to the newspaper. The report follows explosive allegations from Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings, who published a 1,000-word blog Friday that catalogued a litany of alleged failings and potential rule-breaking.
Cummings is expected to launch a fresh attack over the government’s handling of COVID-19 when he appears before a parliamentary committee. He could personally blame his former boss for failures during the second wave of the pandemic that led to one of the worst death tolls in Europe — and point to evidence that proves it.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the UK’s top civil servant, is preparing to face questions over Cummings’ claims as he faces the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee on Monday. He will be asked about the collapsed lender Greensill Capital’s links to the government, and the “effectiveness” of rules requiring ministers to conduct business “ethically and with propriety.”
A senior government minister could also be hauled to the House of Commons to explain Cummings’ allegations, following demands for a statement from the labour opposition party.
The accusations come at a highly sensitive time for Johnson’s administration. Rows involving lobbying by former Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of Greensill, the revolving door between business and government, and claims that lucrative contracts were awarded to firms during the pandemic without proper scrutiny have deflected attention from the country’s vaccination progress.
The furore also threatens to dominate the final week of campaigning ahead of key local and mayoral elections on May 6, and comes as the Conservative government seeks to capitalize on giving a first coronavirus vaccine dose to over half the population. Senior minister Liz Truss defended Johnson on Sunday, telling broadcasters that Cummings’ claims were “tittle-tattle” and the premier had always “acted in the interests of this country.”
She said Johnson had “personally” met the cost of the refurbishment to his apartment — but failed to answer questions on whether Johnson had asked Conservative Party donors to foot the bill.
Accusations from Cummings, who resigned last November, are highly significant; he was at the heart of government following his key strategic role in Britain’s exit from the European Union, which ultimately led to Johnson winning a landslide general election victory in December 2019.
His blog post capped a difficult few days for Johnson, following the resignation of defence minister Johnny Mercer who told Times Radio the government was “the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in.”
But it risks reviving memories of the lobbying scandals that plagued the Conservative government of the 1990s and helped usher in 13 years of Labour rule.
That doesn’t bode well for Johnson, who’s been at pains to stand apart from the traditional Conservatives and remake the premiership in his own image. The complex nature of the lobbying row has so far worked in Johnson’s favour — but he will fear any bombshell claims from Cummings over his handling of the pandemic next month.
“The stench of sleaze coming from the Conservatives is overwhelming,” Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said in an emailed statement.
She said the government must immediately publish its delayed register of ministers’ interests, reveal “who benefited from their VIP fast lane,” and launch a probe into who paid for Johnson’s apartment refurbishment.
Johnson has told top civil servants to set an example by starting to return staff to their desks and he has also asked companies including Goldman Sachs to get more employees back after working from home, the newspaper said.
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