Boris Johnson has refused three times to deny outright he had an affair with Jennifer Arcuri – the US businesswoman being investigated for receiving public funds.
The prime minister repeatedly failed to deny having had a relationship with her while married, in an interview with Sky News.
Ms Arcuri was given a total of £126,000 in taxpayers’ cash, privileged access to three overseas trade missions led by Mr Johnson and called him “one of her best friends”, The Sunday Times revealed this weekend.
That sparked an investigation by the government’s culture department into a £100,000 grant her company, Hacker House, won.
And the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has been asked to decide if Mr Johnson should be investigated for the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.
Ms Arcuri’s husband, Matthew Hickey, said on Twitter she had not received any money.
But in comments that will likely cast a shadow over Mr Johnson’s first speech since becoming prime minister at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the prime minister would not deny having had an affair with Ms Arcuri.
“I’ve said what I have to say about that matter,” he told Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby.
“I think perhaps the most important point is that I’m very, very proud of everything we did in in London.”
Pressed to confirm he was not denying the affair, Mr Johnson said: “The crucial thing is that in terms of promoting London, everything was done with complete propriety.”
Asked about the accusation from Labour he misused public funds, Mr Johnson said: “I can certainly say there was absolutely no question of that at all.”
Mr Johnson also told Sky News he would propose new customs checks on the island of Ireland as part of any new Brexit deal.
He said that while he did not want to have “any kinds of checks at all at the border” there would have to be “checks at either end” as he confirmed he wanted to scrap the “backstop” deal agreed by his predecessor.
But the PM went on to insist that the checks would “not involve border posts away from the border” or infrastructure.
Mr Johnson did acknowledge that the principle of customs checks on the island of Ireland was a clear policy break from the May era but said the “tough bit” had to be done.
“This is the moment of truth, really, because in the end, the country has to be able to govern its customs,” he said.
“If you’re going to come out of the EU, you’ve got to run your own trade policy, you’ve got to run your own customs. So we have to find your own way of doing that. I won’t deny it that this is the tough bit.”
He confirmed that his new proposals will do away with the EU-UK Joint Report agreed in December 2017 to have no hard border or related checks or controls, preserving the all-island economy.
“The reality is, well, you can’t make both things work at once. You have to accept that there’s got to be a change,” he said, adding it would require “a great deal of positive energy to solve”.
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Mr Johnson admitted Brexit had proved particularly divisive in his family, after his brother Jo Johnson quit the government just weeks ago over the PM’s plan.
“We’re a very tight knit, close knit family,” he told Sky News.
“And we all love each other very much. But there’s no doubt about it – we do disagree about this issue. I mean, there are other members of my family who are Leavers but yes, in common with many families around the country there are difference of opinion.”
By Beth Rigby, political editor
Boris Johnson is keen to keep this conference on message and on his domestic agenda: police, hospitals, national living wage, broadband and bus services. And when he’s asked a question on something he’d rather not discuss – whether he’s going to defy the new piece of law requiring him to delay Brexit in the event of no-deal; whether he’d had an affair with the tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri or if he’d inappropriately touched a woman – these are the things he pivots to, and quickly.
So when I asked him whether the journalist Charlotte Edwardes was lying when she said he’d had touched her thigh under the table over lunch he said it “is not true” before moving me quickly onto other matters. “What I want to do is focus on our domestic agenda,” said Mr Johnson. “Which is no just massively investing in hospitals, but also broadband and education funding and in giving people opportunity across our country. That’s why we pay so much attention to bus services, they make a huge difference to people.”
And what about the issue of whether he had used his position as London mayor to “benefit and reward” tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri? Facing a possible criminal investigation over allegations that he misused public funds, the nature of his relationship with Ms Arcuri inevitably in the spotlight too, he refused three times to answer whether he had had a sexual relationship with Ms Arcuri, pivoting instead to talking about the current London mayor’s record on knife crime.
Of course the prime minister doesn’t want to get drawn on these questions and of course he would much rather be talking about policy. But the personal all too often gets in the way when it comes to this prime minister. And while it’s uncomfortable to ask him questions around his personal conduct or indeed use of language, how he behaves and what he says – be it in the chamber of the Commons or elsewhere – does matter: a YouGov poll out this weekend found nearly 47 per cent of women thought he was “dislikeable”, up seven points since the end of August.
But he knows, despite all of this if he manages to get a Brexit deal done and leave the EU by October 31 he will perhaps be riding a surge in support. It will undoubtedly be a triumph. And beyond his personal difficulties, beyond his domestic agenda, Mr Johnson will leave this conference to – in his words – “face the moment of truth” on Brexit.
Because he is entering the final 30 days to do a deal, or not, with the EU. It is going to be “the tough bit” and in the coming days the UK government will submit formal proposals to try to resolve the issue of the backstop. He confirmed in our interview that this will involve customs checks on the island of Ireland as part of any new Brexit deal – although he insisted that it would “not involve border posts away from the border” or infrastructure.
Mr Johnson did acknowledge that the principle of customs checks on the island or Ireland was a clear policy break from the May era but said the “tough bit” had to be done.
“This is the moment of truth really, because in the end, the country has to be able to govern its customs.” Mr Johnson told Sky News. “If you’re going to come out of the EU, you’ve got to run your own trade policy, you’ve got to run your own customs. So we have to find your own way of doing that. I won’t deny it that this is the tough bit.”
He confirmed that his new proposals will do away with the EU-UK Joint Report agreed in December 2017 to have no hard border or related checks or controls, preserving the all-island economy. “The reality is, well, you can’t make both things work at once. You have to accept that there’s got to be a change. The prime minister added that this would require “a great deal of positive energy to solve.”
Dublin clear it will not accept checks as part of a deal. We are entering a hellish final 30 days from his “do-or-die” Brexit deadline. He said to me in the interview: “I love every day that I am privileged to do this job”.
That spirit will surely be tested in the coming days as the fate of Brexit – and perhaps his premiership too – is decided.
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