Boris Johnson has defended himself and his mayoral team after repeatedly refusing to answer whether he failed to declare a conflict of interest over a close friendship with a former model.
In an interview with Sky News, the prime minister dodged questions over a report in The Sunday Times which revealed that Jennifer Arcuri, a technology entrepreneur, was given a total of £126,000 in public money and privileged access to three overseas trade missions led by Mr Johnson.
Ms Arcuri was given preferential treatment to ensure she could come on trade delegations, with Mr Johnson’s team ensuring she would accompany him on trips even though her initial applications to take part were refused.
Sources claimed that Mr Johnson was a regular visitor to her Shoreditch flat in east London, and that in 2013 her fledgling company received £10,000 in sponsorship from an organisation that Mr Johnson was responsible for as London mayor.
Earlier this year, Ms Arcuri’s latest company won a £100,000 grant from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from a fund for English-based entrepreneurs, even though she now lives in California.
Whitehall officials are now investigating the grant.
Stopping short of directly addressing accusations relating to his relationship with Ms Arcuri, the prime minister told Sky News: “We did a huge amount of work while I was mayor of London selling our fantastic city around the world, beating the drum for London and the UK.
“I’m very proud of what we did. Everything was done with complete propriety and in the normal way.”
Asked again to explain his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, he said: “I can tell you that everything we did to promote London and the interests of London, London business, was done in a completely normal way and with utter propriety.”
Earlier, Mr Johnson refused to answer six times when asked about the issue by reporters during a flight to New York.
Mr Johnson was asked: “You’re accused on the front page of The Sunday Times today for failing to declare a series of conflicts of interest over your friendship with Jennifer Arcuri.
“This is your first opportunity to reply to that story. Would you like to deny the story?”
The prime minister replied: “I’m here to talk about what we’re doing in the UN, and this country’s commitment to tackling climate change, stopping the loss of biodiversity and our role as a bridge between our European friends and Americans when it comes to the crisis in the Gulf and many other issues.”
He was then asked: “There is a clear allegation of abuse of public funds. Wouldn’t it be best to settle this with a public inquiry?”
Mr Johnson replied: “I’m here to talk about what we’re doing in the UN.”
The prime minister was challenged again, and this time asked: “The Sunday Times has heavy innuendo that you’re in a sexual relationship with Jennifer Arcuri. Considering public funds were involved – can you clarify your relationship with her?”
He replied: “You’ll forgive me, I’m talking exclusively about what we’re doing here in the UN.”
Mr Johnson did not reply when asked whether he understood why people were asking questions, nor when it was put to him he was failing to deny the issue.
Finally a reporter asserted: “You had an opportunity to deny it. You’re not going to. Is that the position?”
Mr Johnson again repeated: “I’m going to talk about what we’re doing at the UN, the mission that we have: climate change, to promote female education and deliver on a range of UK objectives as you can imagine.”
Jon Trickett MP, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, has called on Mr Johnson to “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”.
“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,” he added.
“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.”
Ms Arcuri told The Sunday Times: “Any grants received by my companies and any trade mission I joined were purely in respect of my role as a legitimate businesswoman.”
The newspaper added she did not comment on the nature of her relationship with Mr Johnson.