(LONDON) — President Harry Truman installed the first White House bowling alley. As first lady, Hillary Clinton built a music room. The Obamas introduced a basketball court, later converted by the Trumps into a tennis pavilion.
Presidents through the years have put their own extravagant twists on the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is estimated to be worth $424 million by real estate company Zillow. But in the U.K., recent refurbishments at the more modest residence for prime ministers at 10 Downing Street have provoked a political firestorm and it is just the latest in a recent spate of controversies that have piled pressure onto Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The refurbishment controversy has been dominating the headlines in the U.K. and, on Thursday, The Daily Mail — dubbing the scandal “Wallpapergate” — carried the headline: “Boris Painted Into A Corner.”
Prime ministers are given an annual allowance of up to £30,000 ($41,000) a year to renovate the Downing Street residence. But Johnson has been accused of potentially using Conservative Party funds to top that up and fund a more lavish redecoration in the apartment at 11 Downing Street, where he lives with his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, and their son.
The allegations, first reported in the Daily Mail, involve a Conservative Party donor, Lord Brownlow, who reportedly said he made a donation to renovate the apartment. The sum in question: £58,000 ($80,950). Reports suggest the total bill could be up to £200,000 ($279,000).
Johnson has said he paid for the renovations personally.
“We believe all reportable donations have been transparently and correctly declared and published by the Electoral Commission,” a Conservative Party spokesperson told ABC News. “We will continue to work constructively with the Electoral Commission on this matter.”
The works were reportedly carried out by luxury interior designer Lulu Lytle, according to Tatler magazine.
The reports come as Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former advisor who infamously broke lockdown rules and was later ousted from his job, said he was aware of plans for donors to pay for the renovations in a 1,000-word blog post.
“I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended,” he wrote.
Cummings said he was not responsible for a series of leaks — including reports which the prime minister denies — that Johnson said he would “let the bodies pile up” rather than impose a national lockdown at the end of last year, which he eventually did.
A formal investigation has been announced by the Electoral Commission, the independent body responsible for regulating political party finances.
“We have been in contact with the Conservative Party since late March and have conducted an assessment of the information they have provided to us,” they said in a statement. “We are now satisfied 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 Electoral Commission can issue fines of up to £20,000 ($27,800).
In a hostile exchange in the House of Commons on Wednesday, a visibly irate Johnson responded to a challenge from Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, to come clean about the growing scandal.
“He (Starmer) has half an hour every week to put serious and sensible questions to me about the state of the pandemic … And he goes on and on, Mr. Speaker, about wallpaper, when, as I’ve told him umpteen times now, I paid for it,” Johnson said.
Granted, in the White House, some refurbishments have been controversial. Nancy Reagan’s purchase of china in 1981 at a time of government cuts was later called the “china crisis.” This week, Johnson and his government seem to have found themselves in a “curtain crisis” of their own.
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