The row over the refurbishment of Boris Johnson's Downing Street flat has stepped up a gear this morning after the Electoral Commission launched a formal investigation. Following initial enquiries to determine who originally paid £58,000 towards the cost of the lavish refurbishment of the Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds's flat, the commission has concluded there are 'reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred'. As a result, a formal investigation is now underway to establish whether this is the case.
So what are they looking for? The government announced last week that Johnson has footed the bill for the works, with Liz Truss insisting on Sunday that the Prime Minister had paid for the renovations out of his own pocket. In doing this, there was an attempt to suggest this was case closed.
However, the issue relates to who footed the bill originally. Were party funds used? And, if so, were they declared in the correct way? Dominic Cummings has alleged on his blog that the Prime Minister was, at one point, considering a funding plan that could be described as 'unethical, foolish (and) possibly illegal'.
So comments from Downing Street have been rather limited. It has repeatedly insisted that no rules have been broken and that any donations will be declared in the proper way in due course. Few think this line could hold even before the investigation was announced. The Electoral Commission will focus on donations (non-declaration of a payment may have constituted an offence), which means questions not just for Downing Street, but for Conservative Campaign HQ, on whether party funds were used.
Were the Prime Minister to declare any donations on the register for ministerial interests, it could have the potential to raise questions about whether he had behaved in accordance with the ministerial code. If there is a question as to whether Johnson broke the ministerial code, it would fall to the Prime Minister's independent adviser on Minister's Interests to investigate.
That position has been vacant for several months after Sir Alex Allan stepped down from the role following the Priti Patel bullying investigation where Johnson overruled his findings. Since then, the vacancy has proved difficult to fill, with candidates said to be put off by reports of Tory sleaze. As of today, that's changed. Lord Geidt has been appointed as Allan's successor – he served as the Queen’s private secretary from 2007-2017. However, Geidt's impact may be limited given the decision to take his advice or listen to his conclusions still rests with the Prime Minister
While Geidt has a busy few weeks ahead, the issue for the government is that the news of the electoral commission investigation shows that events are now moving out of Johnson's control.