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Boris Johnson has been accused of lacking care for the role of his ministerial standards adviser as he was told it was “plainly unsatisfactory” that messages between the Prime Minister and a Tory donor were not disclosed in an investigation into the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
Lord Geidt told the Prime Minister of his “grave concern” that the missing messages were not provided to him when he was investigating how the flat redecoration was funded, or when Mr Johnson’s old phone – where the messages were stored – was accessed in June last year “for another purpose”.
And he said the incident had “shook his confidence”.
Mr Johnson said he offered a “humble and sincere apology” but that he did not recall the exchange with Tory donor and peer Lord Brownlow.
But Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Once again, by attempting to hide the truth, Boris Johnson undermines his own office. The Prime Minister’s pathetic excuses will fool no-one and this is just the latest in a long line of sorry episodes.”
In May, independent adviser on ministers’ interests Lord Geidt ruled that Mr Johnson had “unwisely” allowed the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat at No 11 to go ahead without “more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”.
There had been discussions about a Downing Street Trust being set up to pay for the work, which exceeded the annual public grant of up to £30,000 the Prime Minister can spend on renovations.
But this did not come to fruition, and a later Electoral Commission (EC) investigation found a total of £112,549.12 had been paid by Huntswood Associates – whose director is Lord Brownlow – to cover the work by luxury firm Soane Britain, which is owned by interior designer Lulu Lytle.
Lord Geidt initially cleared Mr Johnson of breaching the ministerial code, but the Prime Minister had assured him he had no knowledge of the payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.
But the EC said that on November 29 last year, Mr Johnson sent a WhatsApp message to Lord Brownlow “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence”, suggesting Lord Geidt had been misled.
In these messages, released for the first time on Thursday, Mr Johnson tells Lord Brownlow: “I am afraid parts of our flat are still a bit of a tip and am keen to allow Lulu Lytle to get on with it. Can I possibly ask her to get in touch with you for approvals?”
To which Lord Brownlow replies: “Of course, get Lulu to call me and we’ll get it sorted ASAP!”
In a second message, he adds: “I should have said, as the trust isn’t set up yet (will be in January) approval is a doddle as it’s only me and I know where the £ will come from, so as soon as Lulu calls we can crack on.”
No 10 said describing the flat as a “tip” reflected “the fact that works were incomplete, refurbishment and renovation works were incomplete, at that point, which meant the further expenditure was necessary to complete them”.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister acknowledged that Mr Johnson got funding to decorate, and he said: “There is an annual grant for the Downing Street residences which allow for modernisation and upgrades, and ensuring that things work as they should.”
But he added there were “extra costs … as has been set out”.
In a letter to the Prime Minister on December 23, Lord Geidt said the emergence of the messages “did not in fact result in change to my original assessment of your interests insofar as they related to the ministerial code”.
“It did, however, expose a signal deficiency in the standards upon which the independent adviser and, by extension, the Prime Minister have an absolute right to rely in establishing the truth in such matters,” he said.
“Indeed, the episode shook my confidence precisely because potential and real failures of process occurred in more than one part of the apparatus of government. I am very grateful to have your apology for these shortcomings and to know of your determination to prevent such a situation from happening again.”
In a letter from December 17, he said: “It is of grave concern to me that, neither at the time when the Cabinet Office was collecting information ahead of my report, nor subsequently when the device had been activated again, was any attempt made to check for information relevant to my enquiries, such as the missing exchange.”
He said the “shortcomings” showed “evidence of insufficient care for the role of your independent adviser”.
Once again, by attempting to hide the truth, Boris Johnson undermines his own office. The Prime Minister’s pathetic excuses will fool no one, and this is just the latest in a long line of sorry episodes.
— Angela Rayner (@AngelaRayner) January 6, 2022
“Beyond that, however, I believe a far greater threat to public confidence attaches to the exchanges unrecalled, the messages undisclosed, the data unconsidered and the subsequent misjudgments about the impact of the messages which I have had to weigh in this initial advice,” he added.
Mr Johnson told Lord Geidt he had not had access to his old mobile phone, which contained the messages, due to “security issues”.
And the adviser said officials had told him it was a “well-publicised security breach” in April 2021 which meant the messages “were no longer available to search”.
Downing Street would not confirm whether this was linked to a report by the cult newsletter Popbitch in the same month that Mr Johnson’s mobile number was still available on press releases online from when he was shadow higher education minister in 2006.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “It’s longstanding policy that we don’t get into matters relating to security.”