Downing Street spends £2.6m on renovations for White House-style press briefings

Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent
·4-min read

Downing Street has spent more than £2.6 million on refurbishments to hold White House-style press briefings, the PA news agency can disclose.

The cost of the renovations for the televised question and answer sessions with journalists was revealed as Boris Johnson faces pressure over the funding of a separate revamp to his official residence.

Labour questioned the Prime Minister’s priorities for shelling out millions on “vanity projects” while “picking the pockets” of NHS workers, amid growing anger at the Government proposing a pay rise for health staff of just 1%.

An extensive overhaul in No 9 Downing Street began last year as the Government announced the plans to hold the televised briefings, with their launch long delayed during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to a freedom of information (FoI) request, the Cabinet Office on Friday issued a breakdown of the costs totalling £2,607,767.67, largely excluding VAT.

The department said funds have been spent to allow daily broadcasting by news organisations within the Grade I-listed building.

“This will necessarily require one-off capital works, including audio-visual equipment, internet infrastructure, electrical works and lighting,” the response said.

“This spending is in the public interest as the new broadcasting of lobby briefings will increase public accountability and transparency about the work of this Government now and in the future.

“Such spending on maintenance and technical facilities reflects that 9 Downing Street (the Privy Council Office) is a Grade I-listed building.”

Opposition MPs seized on the figure to criticise the Government’s recommendation of a 1% pay rise for NHS workers despite the unprecedented pressure they suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

As nurses considered taking industrial action, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “It would take around 100 years for a newly qualified nurse to get paid this kind of money.

“It sums up Boris Johnson’s warped priorities that he can find millions for vanity projects, while picking the pockets of NHS workers.”

Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper added: “This is nothing more than an expensive vanity project and is just more evidence that this Government’s priority is spin, not substance.

“The Prime Minister himself said that he ‘owed his life’ to Covid doctors and nurses but now he’s happy to see frontline nurses take a real-terms pay cut, whilst he gets a flashy new TV studio – the Prime Minister should hang his head in shame.”

Carrie Symonds
Carrie Symonds (Victoria Jones/PA)

The disclosure came as the Prime Minister faced pressure over the refurbishment of his official flat above No 11 overseen by his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.

With costs reported to be spiralling, Downing Street refused to deny that Mr Johnson was considering setting up a charity to pay for the works to the flat.

The move raised concerns of possible conflicts of interest, offering a potential back door to providing a financial benefit to the Prime Minister.

The televised briefings were said to be the brainchild of Mr Johnson’s former adviser Lee Cain.

But he reportedly disagreed with the Prime Minister’s choice of former journalist Allegra Stratton as press secretary to lead the briefings as a Government spokeswoman.

Mr Cain later left Downing Street, along with former Vote Leave colleague Dominic Cummings, as a behind-the-scenes power struggle within No 10 spilled out into the open.

Lee Cain
Lee Cain (Victoria Jones/PA)

An advert said the salary for the press secretary role would be based on experience, but reports suggested the taxpayer-funded post would pay around £100,000 a year.

The FoI response, which was delayed by several weeks as officials decided whether the disclosure was in the public interest, included £1,848,695.12 for the “main works”.

Other costs included £198,023.75 on “long lead items”, and £33,394.63 on broadband equipment.

The launch of the televised briefings had been anticipated as early as the autumn, but in January No 10 said they were being delayed as ministers planned to hold regular press conferences during the lockdown.

Lobby correspondents, the political reporters based in Parliament, currently have daily briefings with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, or his deputy – both civil servants.

But under proposals set out in July, an afternoon session will be filmed at 9 Downing Street, led by Ms Stratton.

As a politically appointed special adviser, rather than an impartial civil servant, she will be able to take aim at opponents as well as defend the Government’s actions.