The UK’s Electoral Commission said in a statement Wednesday that there “are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred. We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case.”
The British leader faced further scrutiny after his former chief aide last week leveled accusations of unethical behavior.
Dominic Cummings, who left his role as Johnson’s former chief adviser late last year after gaining a reputation as the driving force behind the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy and re-election, alleged in a blog post that Johnson planned to have Conservative Party donors pay for the upgrade.
If that was the case, the loan would need to have been declared to the Electoral Commission. Political donations and loans are tightly controlled in the United Kingdom, with loans of more than £7,500 ($10,400) logged and publicly revealed by the commission four times a year.
The commission has the authority to issue sanctions — including substantial fines — if any rules are found to have been breached. It can also refer any apparent breach of the criminal law to prosecutors. If the commission finds that either the Prime Minister or the Conservative Party, or possibly both, failed to declare a loan or donation it could impose a fine of up to £20,0000.
The commission added in its Wednesday statement that “the investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the Commission and whether such funding was reported as required.”
The questions over who initially paid for the apartment upgrade have been dominating British media for days, and news that a formal investigation has been launched could spell further trouble for Johnson.
Conveniently for the opposition, the commission’s bombshell announcement came just before the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session was set to begin in the Parliament, giving opposition leader Keir Starmer plenty of ammunition for the debate.
Starmer jumped on the opportunity, repeatedly challenging Johnson on the issue, asking the Prime Minister whether he initially paid the bill and whether he believes any rules or laws were broken in the process.
Johnson responded by saying, several times, that he paid for the works himself, but he did not address the issue whether he did so “initially.”
The Prime Minister appeared rattled, and at times angry, during the exchange and in turn accused the Labour Party leader of playing political games at the time the country is dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. He suggested that “most people will find it absolutely bizarre” that Starmer was focusing on the issue.
“He has half an hour every week to put serious and sensible questions to me … and he goes on and on … about wallpaper when, as I told him umpteen times now, I paid for it,” Johnson said.
Starmer also circled back to the accusation that Johnson said in October that he’d rather have “bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose another pandemic lockdown. The opposition leader asked the Prime Minister directly whether “he made those remarks or remarks to that effect.”
A Number 10 spokesperson told CNN earlier in the week that the government has “transparently laid out the historic expenditure” and that “any costs of wider refurbishment … have been met by the Prime Minister personally.” CNN reached out to the PM’s office for comment Wednesday.
The Prime Minister and his allies have robustly defended his behavior and strongly denied the allegations. Sarah Vine, a high-profile British journalist, and the wife of senior government minister Michael Gove, told the BBC’s flagship news radio show Wednesday that “the Prime Minister can’t be expected to live in a skip.”
Local elections across the United Kingdom next week will be seen as a test of how much the scandal has resonated with the public.
CNN’s Rob Picheta, Matt Wells and Luke McGee contributed reporting.