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REVEALED: Astonishing leak in freebie villa inquiry

SLEAZE WATCHDOG: PM is guilty over Mustique holiday BORIS: No I’m not!

Holiday mode: Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie Symonds enjoyed a ten-day break
Holiday mode: Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie Symonds enjoyed a ten-day break

BORIS Johnson faced a new sleaze row last night after it emerged that the parliamentary watchdog has accused him of failing to come clean about his Mustique holiday with fiancee Carrie Symonds.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone has said the Prime Minister’s break was worth more than twice the £15,000 he declared in the Commons Register.

And she said it was clear the bill had not been met by Tory donor and Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, as the Prime Minister claimed.

Her damning verdict was delivered privately to Mr Johnson months ago.

But he has refused to accept her ruling and is trying to overturn it to avoid the risk of being suspended as an MP.

The Prime Minister has told Miss Stone that he and Miss Symonds got the villa for half price as a last-minute bargain, the Daily Mail has learned in a leak that will rock No 10.

He has argued that, although the villa they stayed in was not owned by Mr Ross, the tycoon effectively paid for it because palatial villas on the Caribbean island are swapped like Costa Brava time-shares.

Mr Johnson admitted his deal was unconventional - but said there was nothing improper about it.

And he fiercely denied that the holiday was in fact paid for by the highly secretive Mustique Company (MC). The company controls the villas - which can cost £20million - and owns the island, part of St Vincent and the Grenadines, a tax haven where offshore trusts, a device for avoiding tax, are commonplace.

The Mail has also established that Miss Stone’s inquiry - launched an astonishing 15 months ago - has been hampered by the refusal of the MC to take part.

The disclosures come days after she publicly confirmed she was investigating Mr Johnson’s post-election victory holiday to Mustique in December 2019.

The watchdog and the Prime Minister have been locked in a behind-the-scenes battle over whether he obeyed Commons rules whereby MPs must reveal details of all financial donations and benefits.

Sources say that despite her announcement this week that her inquiry is ongoing, Miss Stone told Mr Johnson months ago she was certain he had flouted the rules.

The name of the donor and the value of the benefit he had entered in the Commons Register of Financial Interests were incorrect, she said, meaning he was in breach of Westminster’s code of conduct.

However, defiant Mr Johnson has demanded - and won - more time to prove his innocence.

The row over his holiday from Boxing Day 2019 to January 5, 2020, started after he declared the £15,000 cost was a ‘benefit in kind’ from Mr Ross. Mr Ross initially denied having paid for it.

There was further confusion when it was revealed Mr Johnson and Miss Symonds did not stay in Mr Ross’s villa, but in a different one owned by an American family.

The second family said they were unaware that Mr Johnson had stayed in their villa - but they had been paid by the MC.

The Mail has been told that despite subsequently stating publicly that he had ‘facilitated’ the holiday, Miss Stone says Mr Ross told her he did not pay for it. This is thought to be why she rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that Mr Ross was the donor.

She also said the advertised cost of renting the villa at that time of the year was £3,300 per day - or £33,000 over ten days, more than double the £15,000 which was declared by Mr Johnson.

She is understood to have said she did not believe it would have been available so cheaply.

Miss Stone, frustrated by the refusal of the MC to tell her who paid for the holiday and its true cost, demanded the information from Mr Johnson. He is said to have repeated his claim that Mr Ross was the donor - adding that he assumed the MC would use Mr Ross’s villa on another occasion to get its money back.

Miss Stone reportedly challenged Mr Ross to provide evidence of this. Apparently unconvinced by his reply, sources say, she declared it was evident Mr Ross had not paid.

She told the Prime Minister bluntly she had decided he was in the wrong, and he had not met his duty to obey paragraph 14 of the Parliamentary code of conduct.

It says MPs must ‘conscientiously fulfil’ their duty to declare all financial interests in the Commons Register - including benefits from any trusts.

Miss Stone told Mr Johnson she planned to refer the matter to the Parliamentary Standards Committee, which can impose sanctions including suspending an MP, and asked if he accepted her decision.

The Prime Minister is said to have objected in strong terms. It was Miss Stone who had got her facts wrong, not him, he said.

The £15,000 was a realistic price for a last-minute booking - and Mustique villas were more akin to time-shares than privately owned holiday homes. It was routine for the use of them to be exchanged by their super-rich owners, just like the less well-off with time-shares.

Staying in a villa for free - as he had done - certainly did not mean the MC had paid for it.

The only crack in his defiant stance came when, seemingly in a plea of mitigation, he said his Commons declaration was correct at the time it had been registered.

If Miss Stone sticks to her original judgment, it will be referred to the Parliamentary Standards Committee, chaired by senior Labour MP Chris Bryant.

Mr Johnson has previously been in hot water with the committee - and Miss Stone. In 2018, before he became Prime Minister, he made a ‘full and unreserved’ apology to MPs for failing to declare more than £50,000 in income and registering nine payments after the required 28-day deadline.

Miss Stone said the breaches were ‘neither inadvertent nor minor’. Some Tory MPs fear that if Mr Johnson is found to have broken the rules again he will be suspended from the Commons, the first prime minister to endure such a humiliation.

The Mail has been told that Downing Street’s main worry is that Miss Stone insists that he declares that the MC provided the benefit either in part or in full.

That could lead to difficult questions about the company which prides itself on the secrecy, including financial, it offers to its rich and famous villa owners.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr Ross or the MC.

Notwithstanding Miss Stone’s claim that Mr Ross told her he did not pay for the holiday, the businessman insists he backs the Prime Minister’s version of events. A spokesman for Mr Ross said: ‘Mr Ross facilitated accommodation for Mr Johnson on Mustique valued at £15,000.

‘Therefore this is a benefit in kind from Mr Ross to Mr Johnson, and Mr Johnson’s Commons declaration is correct.’

A Downing Street spokesman said: ‘The PM transparently declared the benefit in kind in the Commons Register of Interests. The Cabinet Office was aware of the declaration and was content it was appropriate.

‘A spokesman for Mr Ross confirmed the PM’s declaration is correct and the accommodation was facilitated as a donation in kind.’

An MC spokesman told the Daily Mail it was ‘absolutely not’ the case the company had paid for Mr Johnson’s stay. The spokesman had ‘no idea’ who had actually paid. Miss Stone declined to comment.