“Under Starmer it has been two steps forward and one step back,” said Mr. Fielding, “and he hasn’t addressed the problem of how you win back the red wall without losing metropolitan liberal voters.”

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U.K. Conservatives Win Hartlepool Parliament Seat

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain scored a striking political victory on Friday when his Conservative Party snatched a bellwether parliamentary seat from the opposition Labour Party, which had held it since the constituency’s creation in the 1970s.

In a by-election in Hartlepool, in the northeast of England, the Conservative candidate, Jill Mortimer, easily defeated her rivals, consolidating Mr. Johnson’s earlier successes in winning over voters in working-class areas that had traditionally sided mainly with Labour.

Better still for the prime minister, the vote on Thursday came after days of publicity over claims that he broke electoral rules over the financing of an expensive refurbishment of his apartment.

That appeared to have counted for little with voters in Hartlepool, an economically struggling coastal town, when the results were announced Friday morning after an overnight count.

after a successful vaccination program for which Mr. Johnson has been able to claim credit.

Though not unexpected, the outcome underscored the extent to which Mr. Johnson is rewriting Britain’s electoral map and dealt a blow to Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader. Mr. Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn last year after Labour’s defeat in the December 2019 general election, its worst performance in more than 80 years.

That landslide election victory for the Conservatives in 2019 followed the crisis over Britain’s exit from the European Union, and Mr. Johnson scored well in many traditional working-class communities with his appeal to voters to give him the power to “get Brexit done.”

Though Britain has now completed its European Union withdrawal, and the issue is fading somewhat, the new Conservative victory suggests that Mr. Johnson remains popular in areas — like Hartlepool — that voted for Brexit in a 2016 referendum.

Collectively known as the “red wall,” because they were once heartlands of the Labour Party, these areas are being targeted by Mr. Johnson who has promised to “level up” by bringing prosperity to the north and middle of England, and to areas that feel forgotten.

Elections also took place on Thursday in Scotland and those could present a bigger threat to Mr. Johnson. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the pro-independence Scottish National Party, is hoping for a strong performance that she can use to justify her call for a new referendum on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom.

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Decorating Scandal Engulfs Boris Johnson and Puts Fiancée in Spotlight

LONDON — Of all the unsavory ethical questions swirling around Prime Minister Boris Johnson these days, the one that has stuck is how he paid for the costly makeover of his apartment in Downing Street. And it has put his 33-year-old fiancée, Carrie Symonds, under a particularly scorching spotlight.

Mr. Johnson has been accused in news reports of secretly using funds from a Conservative Party donor to supplement his public budget for redecorating the apartment — a charge that, although Mr. Johnson says he has repaid the money, has prompted an investigation by Britain’s Electoral Commission. But it is Ms. Symonds and her purportedly expensive taste in wallpaper and designer furniture that has become a running theme on social media and in British tabloids.

“#CarrieAntoinette” is trending as a Twitter hashtag, while the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, had himself photographed studying wallpaper at the British department store John Lewis — a labored stunt meant to make light of reports that Ms. Symonds derided the Downing Street décor left by Mr. Johnson’s no-nonsense predecessor, Theresa May, as a “John Lewis nightmare.”

Never mind that Ms. Symonds has not actually been quoted saying anything about John Lewis. The reference, in a profile of her in Tatler magazine, is attributed to an unnamed person who once visited her in the apartment. Tatler did report that Ms. Symonds oversaw the renovation project, and her involvement means she, too, may have to turn over evidence to the Electoral Commission.

For Ms. Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications chief who now works for an animal-rights group, it is the latest trial in a year overstuffed with dramatics: the near-fatal illness of Mr. Johnson after he contracted the coronavirus; the birth of their son, Wilfred; and the bitter purging of Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, in which she is reported to have played a behind-the-scenes role.

It all has put Ms. Symonds at the heart of a familiar narrative, one replete with sexism and double standards: the grasping, manipulative politician’s partner. She joins a parade of women, from Hillary Clinton to Cherie Blair, the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose murmurings to their men were the subject of fevered suspicion.

The fact that her relationship with Mr. Johnson coincided with the breakup of his 25-year marriage, and that she became the first unmarried partner to move into Downing Street, only adds to Ms. Symonds’ tabloid portrayal as a libertine Lady Macbeth or an upwardly mobile Marie Antoinette — choose your cliché.

“The outsized fascination with Carrie Symonds’ role in the prime minister’s circle reflects outdated sexist tropes that regard women in positions of influence as inherently devious,” said Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group and a research fellow at the London School of Economics.

Her defenders say that as an accomplished political player in her own right, Ms. Symonds has no less right to offer advice to the prime minister than any other unpaid adviser — and he would be wise to take it.

And yet, others say, there are legitimate questions to ask about Ms. Symonds’ influence, which goes beyond the news media’s obsessive focus on home improvements at Downing Street. Her ardent defense of animal rights was reported to have contributed to the government’s decision to halt a cull of badgers in Derbyshire, which contradicted the advice of scientists and veterinarians.

Friends of Ms. Symonds have been installed in key positions in Downing Street and, in the telling of Mr. Cummings, protected by her even after evidence of wrongdoing. On his blog, he claimed that Mr. Johnson wanted to shut down a leak investigation after it became clear that the culprit was Henry Newman, a close adviser to Ms. Symonds.

Mr. Cummings quoted Mr. Johnson as saying to him, “If Newman is confirmed as the leaker, then I will have to fire him, and this will cause me very serious problems with Carrie, as they’re best friends.”

Downing Street has denied that Mr. Johnson tried to shut down the investigation, but it did not comment about Ms. Symonds’ role.

Her defenders say she has a savvy political sense and could well have aspired to a seat in Parliament if she hadn’t begun a relationship with Mr. Johnson. To the extent that she is giving him advice, some say, it is helpful: cutting loose Mr. Cummings and other hard-core Brexiteers softened the prime minister’s image and improved his popularity before the recent ethics issues pulled him back to his more familiar role as a political scalawag.

“She was fantastic — she is very loyal and was hugely supportive,” said John Whittingdale, a former culture secretary for whom Ms. Symonds served as a special adviser. He described her as “a strongly committed Conservative” and a “very strong Brexit supporter” at a time when that was a less popular position.

“The people who are attacking Carrie clearly see a route to damage the prime minister by attacking her,” he said.

Ms. Symonds labors under a few handicaps, one of which is the lack of a job description for a prime minister’s partner. The role has no constitutional status, and unlike that of first lady in the United States, little administrative support. Successful spouses have usually had strong identities outside Downing Street.

Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, was a businessman, as is Mrs. May’s husband, Philip. David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, ran a fashion company, while Ms. Blair, who once had her own political ambitions, worked as a high-level barrister during her husband’s decade in office. Though Ms. Blair’s influence came under criticism early on, the scrutiny subsided as she built a flourishing legal career.

“She always knew she could go back to her job at the bar, which made it less demeaning to be the appendage,” said Fiona Millar, a journalist and onetime aide to Ms. Blair. Ms. Symonds, she said, “doesn’t seem to have that life outside politics, which the people who’ve been successful at it did have.”

The daughter of Matthew Symonds, a co-founder of The Independent newspaper, and a lawyer for the paper, Josephine McAfee, Ms. Symonds was raised by her mother (both parents were married to other people at the time).

Her young adulthood was deeply affected by an incident in 2007 when she was targeted by a taxi driver who served her spiked drinks while driving her home. Ms. Symonds testified against the man, John Worboys, who was jailed as a serial sexual predator.

Well connected and social, Ms. Symonds became a public relations aide for the Conservative Party, eventually rising to chief communications officer, where she encountered Mr. Johnson. The couple had hoped to get married last summer, after his divorce from Marina Wheeler became final, but delayed the date because of coronavirus restrictions.

Life in Downing Street is less glamorous than it might appear, Ms. Millar said. While the job comes with a spacious Westminster apartment, a baronial weekend home, Chequers, and an annual decorating budget of £30,000 ($41,600), the government does not pay for food or household staff. Outside of public occasions, the couple are expected to cook for themselves or get takeout.

Living above the office, as Mr. Johnson struggled with the pandemic and his own illness, was challenging, people who know Ms. Symonds said. She contracted Covid herself, while pregnant, and then cared for their baby while Mr. Johnson, 56, was still shaking off his illness.

“There were times last week that were very dark indeed,” Ms. Symonds tweeted after he was released from an intensive care unit. Despite that, she retained her interest in environmental protection.

“Since having Wilf & not being able to get to the shops during lockdown,” she posted four months later, “I’ve relied on Amazon for lots of baby essentials, but I’ve been dismayed at the amount of plastic packaging. Please sign this petition to ask Amazon to give us plastic-free options too.”

Political commentators say they see Ms. Symonds’ fingerprints in Mr. Johnson’s embrace of green policies. They say she has played to his pragmatic instincts by nudging him toward a more conciliatory politics.

Few prime ministerial partners have been so deeply immersed in politics. Not only does she know the Conservative Party well, she also has strong contacts among its lawmakers, political journalists and the special advisers who play a powerful role in Downing Street and elsewhere in the government.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said people have questioned Ms. Symonds’ influence “because of her specific insights and connections and background as a political operative and because of Boris Johnson’s malleability, and the fact that no one is sure what in his head.”

Some of the uneasiness about Ms. Symonds is as much about Mr. Johnson as her. With few fixed positions and a lack of ideological moorings, he leaves the impression that his decisions can be swayed by those with greatest access to him. During a year of lockdowns, that circle sometimes shrank to Ms. Symonds.

“The reason we’re fussing over this is that we think we have an inadequate figure as prime minister,” said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is a senior research fellow at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a London think tank. “If we thought we had a really good prime minister, would we really care who his spouse is, beyond hoping he has a happy personal life?”

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U.K.’s Johnson on the Defensive as Ethical Questions Mount

LONDON — The ethical allegations swirling around Prime Minister Boris Johnson got more serious on Wednesday after Britain’s Electoral Commission announced it would open a formal investigation into whether Mr. Johnson secretly used political donations to refurbish his apartment in Downing Street.

The commission said it found “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offense or offenses may have occurred.” Mr. Johnson is accused of using funds from a Conservative Party donor to supplement the budget for upgrading his official quarters, which are above the offices at 11 Downing Street.

Mr. Johnson insisted he paid for the refurbishment out of his own pocket, but he has not disclosed whether he repaid a donation made to the Conservative Party once the accusations surfaced. He is entitled to £30,000 ($41,600) a year in public funds to decorate his apartment, but apparently concluded that budget was inadequate.

The news of a formal investigation raised the political stakes for Mr. Johnson, who has been engaged in an ugly exchange of charges and countercharges with his disaffected former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. In Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson seemed uncharacteristically rattled and angry.

tough questioning from the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, the prime minister said, “I have paid for the Downing Street refurbishment personally.” He said he would make more disclosures about the financing if an independent adviser just appointed by the government deemed it necessary.

“I conformed in full with the code of conduct and officials have kept advising me through this whole thing,” Mr. Johnson said.

Questions about the prime minister’s apartment makeover are only one of multiple issues dogging him as his government has become bogged down in an ethical quagmire. He is also accused of making callous statements about imposing another lockdown and giving wealthy businesspeople unusual access.

Mr. Johnson denied news reports that he told aides last fall he would rather let “the bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third lockdown. But he acknowledged that he had expressed deep frustration, saying “they were very bitter, very difficult decisions for any prime minister.”

government’s successful rollout of coronavirus vaccines, which he predicted voters would reward in regional elections on May 6.

He defended his contacts with a British billionaire, James Dyson, over his company’s emergency manufacturing of ventilator machines in the early days of the pandemic, noting that Mr. Dyson, whose company is known for making high-end vacuums, said this week that the two men were not close.

Still, the cloud of allegations kept Mr. Johnson on the defensive, with a succession of lawmakers accusing him of deflecting, dissembling or worse.

“Are you a liar, Mr. Prime Minister?” said the parliamentary leader of the Scottish National Party, Ian Blackford, drawing a slap on the wrist from the speaker of the House of Commons, who said the question was “unsavory.”

Mr. Starmer, a former crown prosecutor, tried to pin down Mr. Johnson on specific points regarding the refurbishment, noting that ministers who knowingly utter untrue statements in the House are obliged to resign.

He pressed Mr. Johnson about who paid the initial invoice for the work on the apartment, and asked him to respond to a report that a wealthy Conservative Party donor, David Brownlow, had contributed £58,000 ($80,000), which was used to pay for part of the upgrade.

Mr. Johnson declined to address either point, repeating only that he paid for the refurbishment. He tried to turn the attack back on the opposition, claiming that it was ignoring public health and economic issues that ordinary people care about in favor of frivolous questions about interior decoration.

“He goes on and on about wallpaper, which as I’ve told him umpteen times, ‘I paid for,’” Mr. Johnson said, gesticulating angrily.

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‘It’s a Paper Tiger.’ Britain’s Lobby Laws Under Fire as Johnson Fights ‘Sleaze’ Label

LONDON — Still riding high from Britain’s successful vaccine rollout and a politically shrewd campaign to kill off a proposed European soccer super league, Prime Minister Boris Johnson now confronts thorny questions about how he and other senior officials have dealt with efforts to lobby the government.

For a politician who gleefully defies convention and rarely plays by the rules, it amounts to a return to normality.

The latest questions involve text messages that Mr. Johnson traded with a wealthy British businessman, James Dyson, over his plan to manufacture ventilators in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The story took a juicy turn on Friday after British papers reported that the messages were leaked by Mr. Johnson’s disgruntled former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.

On Friday, Mr. Cummings fired back, writing on his personal blog that he did not have the text messages that were leaked, though he did have copies of other texts between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Dyson. He also claimed that Downing Street falsely accused him of leaking details about a decision to impose a lockdown last fall.

Greensill Capital, that was seeking loans from the British government.

The government rebuffed the requests, but Mr. Cameron’s level of access — and the fact that he did not break any laws — alarmed critics, who said it revealed the inadequacy of the rules governing lobbying by former officials. The same is true, they said, of the code of conduct for the prime minister and his cabinet members.

“It’s a paper tiger system,” said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is now a senior research fellow at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a think tank based in London. “If anyone wants to push it, it falls over in a heap.”

The guidelines on civil servants, she said, needed to be updated as the government has recruited more people with business skills, who tend to rotate in an out of government jobs. The Ministerial Code, which sets out standards of conduct, is a toothless document that says nothing about lobbying, she said, and can be rewritten or discarded by the prime minister.

Some analysts drew a distinction between the Greensill affair and Mr. Johnson’s texts with Mr. Dyson. The government had pressed his company, which is based in Singapore and is known for its high-end vacuums, to produce ventilators to avert a shortfall in hospitals overrun with Covid patients. Mr. Dyson agreed, at some cost to the company, but wanted to make sure that employees who moved to Britain to carry out the job would not be penalized by the tax laws.

“Dyson was reasonable in asking that his team not be disadvantaged by doing that in the emergency,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, a think tank in London. “What is questionable is the ease of access to the P.M. it revealed, and how he has declined to follow the normal practice of changing phones in office.”

Holding on to his cellphone — and using it to send WhatsApp messages to a pro-Brexit businessman — is hardly the only way Mr. Johnson has flouted convention. After his election victory in 2019, he and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, vacationed on the chic Caribbean island of Mustique. Mr. Johnson claimed another wealthy businessman picked up the tab of £15,000 ($20,785), which the businessman denied.

The opposition Labour Party has seized on the allegations of cronyism to paint a portrait of a Conservative government awash in corruption. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, hammered Mr. Johnson in Parliament for what his party considers a pattern of dubious behavior, including handing out lucrative contracts for protective medical equipment to well-connected firms.

“Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze,” Mr. Starmer thundered, “and it’s all on his watch.”

How much these scandals will hurt Mr. Johnson is another question. By now, analysts said, his peccadilloes are so well established that little will change public views of him. The Conservative Party has widened its lead over Labour in recent polls, as the government has reaped credit for the vaccine rollout. And Mr. Johnson’s opposition to the soccer Super League burnished his populist credentials.

But Professor Bale said that as the disclosures accumulate, they can have a “snowball effect.” Prime Minister John Major, Mr. Johnson’s 1990s forebear, enjoyed a reputation as an honest politician. A string of scandals involving members of his government and the Conservative Party eventually ravaged that reputation.

The changing political environment may have played a role in Downing Street’s decision to abandon a plan to hold White House-style televised briefings. Mr. Johnson’s aides had billed the briefings as proof of the government’s transparency and spent £2.6 million ($3.5 million) to build a wood-paneled briefing room.

But earlier this week, the sessions were quietly shelved. Allegra Stratton, the press secretary hired to go before the cameras, was reassigned to be the spokeswoman for the United Nations’ climate change conference, which Britain is hosting in Glasgow in November. Officials said Mr. Johnson would still use the briefing room for his own encounters with the press.

If his most recent news conference is any indication, those may become scratchier. On Monday, a reporter asked Mr. Johnson whether he had acted with “honesty and integrity” in his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, an American woman who claims to have had an affair with Mr. Johnson when he was mayor of London.

“Yes,” he replied tersely.

Alastair Campbell, who served as press secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair, said the political dynamic had changed since Mr. Johnson’s aides conceived the idea of televised briefings last fall. Then, during the depths of the pandemic, press criticism of the government was restrained by the sense of national crisis.

“Its arrival has coincided with a time when, finally, a few journalists are starting to show a little more robustness,” Mr. Campbell said. “The Cameron-Greensill story has unleashed untapped concern at the nature of the governing party.”

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