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Why Boris Johnson’s Downing Street refurbishment is a big deal in Britain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was grilled on April 28 by the opposition over the funding used to refurbish his Downing Street apartment. (Video: PARLIAMENTARY RECORDING UNIT)
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LONDON — Perhaps Boris Johnson could have learned a lesson from the controversy over Harry and Meghan's renovation of Frogmore Cottage: The British are very touchy about the financing of refurbishments.

The British prime minister has come under scrutiny for the redecorating of his official apartment — or flat, as it’s called here. On Wednesday, Britain’s political spending watchdog announced an investigation into whether funds used to pay for the refurbishment of 11 Downing Street were properly disclosed.

“We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offense or offenses may have occurred,” the Electoral Commission said in a statement.

Johnson denies wrongdoing.

“I have paid for Downing Street refurbishment personally,” he told Parliament on Wednesday. When pressed on who initially paid for the work, and specifically if a Conservative Party donor had lent him $80,000, Johnson repeated that he had personally covered the costs and had “conformed in full” with the proper codes of conduct.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer called him “Major Sleaze” in a “cash for curtains” controversy and accused the prime minister of buying wallpaper at $1,100 a roll.

It’s common for prime ministers to refurbish their official residence. They are allowed $42,000 a year from the public purse for renovations.

But Johnson has reportedly spent well above that. The BBC pegs the figure at up to nearly $280,000.

That hardly compares to the reported $1.75 million President Donald Trump spent updating the White House, or the $1.5 million spent by President Barack Obama.

But 11 Downing Street is a four-bedroom flat. Defending the cost is tough for a Conservative prime minister, whose party has been known for “austerity” policies and who has been preaching to the British people about the need for sacrifices in a pandemic.

It doesn’t help that, according to British media reports, Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, talked about wanting to get rid of the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” left behind by Johnson’s predecessor — a reference to a department store associated with the aspiring middle class.

Johnson has tended to be adept at connecting with working-class Britons, and those who have been out of work, despite his own privileged background.

But the John Lewis comment has opened him to criticism that he is out of touch, with the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams writing that it “makes Johnson and Symonds seem scornful, remote and painfully clueless about the lives of their compatriots.”

The department store appeared to be trolling the Johnson family on Wednesday when it tweeted: “Time for an interiors refresh? We pride our Home Design Service on having something for *almost* everyone.”

The story line also feeds doubts about Johnson, who is seen in polling as less trustworthy than many previous prime ministers.

Under Britain’s transparency rules, if he did receive a loan, he would have had to declare it.

Dominic Cummings, a former top aide to the prime minister who is now at odds with his old boss, claims that Johnson had planned to get Conservative Party donors to “secretly pay” for the renovations.

“I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal,” Cummings wrote in a blog post.

Dominic Cummings, dubbed Boris Johnson’s ‘brain,’ leaves Downing Street

Johnson’s office has suggested that Cummings is behind a drip, drip of allegations of lying, cronyism and unethical behavior over the past several days.

It’s not yet clear whether any of the allegations will hurt Johnson or his Conservative party, which has an edge over Labour going into local elections on May 6.

After Johnson’s election as party leader in July 2019, he and Symonds became the first unmarried couple to live in the official residence. Their son, Wilfred, turns 1 on Thursday.

Johnson chose the larger four-bedroom flat at 11 Downing Street, leaving then-Chancellor Sajid Javid, who has four children, to live in the two-bedroom apartment above the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street.

In the past 25 years, No. 11 has been the preferred residence. Before that, prime ministers lived at No. 10. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — a grocer’s daughter — called it “living over the shop.”

British prime ministers also have access to Chequers, a 1,500-acre retreat that includes a manor house and an indoor swimming pool.

When moving into Downing Street, Thatcher described the Cabinet Ante Room as looking like “a down-at-heel Pall Mall club, with heavy and worn leather furniture.” The rooms upstairs, she said, had a furnished-rental feel.

Before she left more than 11 years later, she had brought in an architect to make the drawing rooms more stately, redecorated to her own tastes and introduced works of contemporary art.

But Thatcher emphasized frugality. When refurbishment expenditures were published in 1979, she objected to 464 pounds spent on linens, saying, “We only use one bedroom.” And on a line item for an ironing board costing 19 pounds, she wrote, “I will pay for the ironing board.”

Subsequent prime ministers have remodeled their digs as well. According to the London Evening Standard, Tony Blair spent $176,000 on upgrades to 11 Downing Street, and David Cameron spent $89,000.

Each picked up the tab for the amount above the $42,000 allowance.

Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, did a more modest makeover, featuring a red three-seater sofa, rose-scented candles — and a chrome lamp from John Lewis.

Some European leaders have made a point to live in modest residences.

Angela Merkel occupies the same apartment in central Berlin that she had before she became Germany’s chancellor. The name on the buzzer reads “Prof. Dr. Sauer,” for her husband.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, lives in a tiny apartment — 269 square feet — on the 13th floor of the commission’s headquarters in Brussels.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis declined the chance to live in a luxurious papal apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square, where his predecessors resided for over a century, and instead choose a humbler abode.

Of course, some leaders in Europe still live in palaces. And that includes the British royals.

But the British public doesn’t have much tolerance for lavish spending at the taxpayer’s expense.

After they were married, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, spent about $3.3 million of taxpayer funds to renovate Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, England.

The cost, predictably, drew criticism. And by the time the couple had quit as working royals and decamped to the United States, they had repaid the money.

Boris Johnson’s trickiest problem: Downing Street flat renovation