Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have turned on each other with the “brutality” only former allies can muster, says James Forsyth in The Spectator. After No 10 accused Cummings of leaking Johnson’s text messages last week, the PM’s ex-chief adviser hit back. But forget the “quotable” allegation in the Daily Mail, most likely from Cummings, that Johnson said he’d rather let “bodies pile high” than allow a third lockdown (see Inside politics for more on this). Most serious is the claim that a Tory donor secretly paid to refurbish the Downing Street flat. The PM has now paid the £58,000 bill himself, but he is skirting around the question of whether someone else did first. Emails leaked to the Mail back up the claims.
Judging by Johnson’s “rant” at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, “the drip-drip of sleaze stories” has rattled him, says Jessica Elgot in The Guardian. And they’re only just beginning. The Electoral Commission is looking into the funding of the flat renovations, and Johnson might be required to give evidence. The probe will run for months, keeping the story in the headlines; the parliamentary standards commissioner may well investigate as well. And “throwaway comments” – like Symonds’s friends complaining that Theresa May turned the flat into a “John Lewis nightmare” – could “penetrate deep into middle England”.
Johnson’s “sudden obsession” with expensive wallpaper matters, says Alice Thomson in The Times. His “shambolic looks” and disdain for “posh nosh” endeared him to voters. But by seeming to knock John Lewis, “the country’s most aspirational and dependable shop”, he looks like an “unappealing snob” at a time of national hardship. That’ll “haunt him” far more than the ins and outs of the funding.
I’m not so sure “red wall” voters care, says Tom Newton Dunn in the Evening Standard. Everyone knows “Johnson is a flawed character and his private life chaotic” – a Sunderland mechanic once told me he envied the PM’s love life. So far “the polls haven’t moved”, and a guilty verdict from the Electoral Commission “is unlikely to spell the end”. The real problem is that the oft-promised “levelling up” agenda has barely got going. The by-election in Hartlepool next week will be a crucial gauge of the red wall’s mood.
The session on 26 May when Cummings appears before a government committee to discuss the pandemic response will be even more risky, says Katy Balls in the I newspaper. Cummings will likely let loose about the flat funding and implicate his old boss in repeatedly locking the country down too late. One senior Tory predicts that he’ll make claims, then, if No 10 denies them, publish supporting evidence to make the government look dishonest. Cummings has no incentive to “wind down” this fight, and Johnson has an awful lot to lose from it.
The big picture
Will this hurt Johnson at the polls? So far, no, says Patrick Maguire in The Times: the Tory lead over Labour is virtually unchanged at 11 points this morning, “despite days of painful headlines”. And Keir Starmer’s mischievous photo op in the wallpaper aisle of a John Lewis might backfire, says James Forsyth in the Coffee House Shots podcast. Emphasising the humour of the scandal plays to the strengths of Johnson, a canny political joker.