Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to explain why he allegedly failed to declare an interest in the allocation of public money to a close friend while he was mayor of London.
The Sunday Times reported that a company run by Jennifer Arcuri, an American technology entrepreneur and friend of Johnson, was given tens of thousands of pounds in public funds and access to overseas trade missions led by Johnson during the prime minister’s time as mayor.
Downing Street has refused to comment on the reports. But Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Johnson had a case to answer. “Whether we can trust the prime minister is a critical issue for everybody in the country at the moment,” he told the Guardian.
Labour is demanding that No 10 provide a full explanation for how the funds and favours were granted to Arcuri.
Rory Stewart: ‘If Boris Johnson gets a deal, my political career is over’
Jon Trickett, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “Boris Johnson must now give a full account of his actions in response to these grave and most serious allegations of the misuse of public money in his former role as mayor of London.”
He added: “The public has a right to know how and why these funds were used for the benefit of a close personal friend without, on the face of it, legitimate reason.
“This cannot be swept under the carpet. It is a matter of the integrity of the man now leading our country, who appears to believe he can get away with anything.”
Arcuri’s company Innotech was given £10,000 in sponsorship from a mayoral organisation in 2013, the Sunday Times reported. Johnson was also the guest speaker at several of its events, and appeared in a Google hangout alongside Arcuri.
“I’m always happy to hang out at Innotech,” the then mayor told Arcuri in 2014.
A year later Arcuri won a £15,000 grant under a government programme to encourage foreign entrepreneurs in the UK, the Sunday Times report alleges.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is responsible for the scheme, confirmed to the Guardian it was investigating how the payment was made. But it pointed out the funds were awarded to a UK-registered company.
The report also suggests that Arcuri was initially refused permission to attend two of the trade mission trips because her business did not meet the eligibility criteria.
But after the intervention of Johnson, she was allowed on to the missions, according to an email seen by the paper. It points out that Johnson was bound by a Greater London Authority (GLA) code of conduct to declare any private interests. He was also banned from providing undue benefits to friends.
Graham said declaring potential conflicts of interest was a cornerstone of the seven so-called Nolan principles of conduct in public life. He said: “There is clearly a prima facie case of him having breached the code of conduct and he should explain in full how this situation developed without him fully declaring his personal interest.”
Graham said Johnson could not use the excuse of not commenting on his personal life when public money was involved. “There’s a crossover between potentially his personal relationships and the award of public funds to a fledgling business,” Graham said.
He added: “If he hasn’t declared a personal interest when public funds were being allocated, that’s a clear breach of the Nolan principles. And it looks like a specific breach of the code of conduct in operation at the GLA at the time.”
On Friday, Jonathan Evans, the current chair of the standards committee, wrote an open letter to all public office holders on the importance of upholding the Nolan principles.
It said: “Leadership of standards needs to come from the top: from government and from parliament. In the current political situation, it is the view of our committee that it is even more important that high standards are not only consistently observed but also demonstrably valued.”
Arcuri, 34, was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying: “Any grants received by my companies and any trade mission I joined were purely in respect of my role as a legitimate businesswoman.”
There is precedent for members of the government being forced to resign over conflicts of interest. In 2011, the then defence secretary, Liam Fox, resigned after he was found to have procured high-level overseas meetings for his friend and adviser Adam Werrity.
In 2017 Priti Patel was forced to resign as international development secretary over a conflict of interest arising from secret meetings with the Israeli government. Patel was brought back into government in July when Johnson appointed her as home secretary.