The details had been murky, but this week more started to emerge: reports now suggest that Conservative Party funds were used to pay the bill for the refurbishment at Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat nine months ago.
At the centre of the new report is David Brownlow, otherwise known as Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row, who was revealed by the Daily Mail to have paid the Tory party £58,000 towards the cost of the makeover.
Leaked emails from October last year showed the peer confirming he had made the payment, adding that the donation should be attributed to the “soon-to-be-formed Downing Street Trust”. Number 10 has since confirmed that Johnson paid for the works himself.
The donation issue is now subject to enquiries with outcomes yet to be determined, but this week’s bombshell revelation is not the first account of Brownlow digging deep into his pockets for Tory causes. The Liverpool-born entrepreneur has donated almost £3 million to the Conservatives over the years and has long mixed in elite circles. He was made a peer by Theresa May in her resignation honours’ list in 2019 after they had a private dinner, and has been photographed at events such as Royal Ascot with senior royals from the Queen to the Duke of Sussex.
So what do we know about him and why did he donate such a large sum of money apparently intended for the PM’s refurbishment? From his connection with Samantha Cameron to his long history of philanthropy, this is everything you need to know about the man caught up in the Downing Street decor scandal.
Who is he?
According to last year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Brownlow, 57, is the 521st richest person in the UK, with an estimated fortune of £271 million. The entrepreneur and philanthropist was born in Liverpool and studied economics at Newcastle Polytechnic before joining the police at the Thames Valley police headquarters in Slough after graduating.
Brownlow spent two years in the force before leaving to become a recruitment consultant. He went on to co-found recruitment firm Huntswood CTC in 1996 and the company now has 4,500 staff specialising in “governance, risk and compliance”. “Imagine a game of snakes and ladders... but without the snakes,” he once said in an interview of the firm’s meritocratic approach.
The peer went on to co-found a private equity firm, Havisham, in 2013, through which he has invested more than £20 million across property, travel, fashion and hospitality businesses. His other business interests include a chain of upmarket gastropubs in Berkshire and Surrey, an electric car subscription service and a TV production company in Aberdeen.
Brownlow is also a generous philanthropist. In 2013 he also set up the David Brownlow Charitable Foundation, which he describes as being “dedicated to enhancing the lives and wellbeing of individuals and communities where there is an element of disadvantage, through personal development such as education, the provision of new equipment, or the improvement and regeneration of their community”.
Organisations the foundation has supported include local children’s charities in Berkshire, The Prince’s Countryside Fund founded by Prince Charles, and a school supported by Prince Harry’s charity, Sentebale, in Lesotho. In 2015, Brownlow also sponsored a garden created by Sentebale at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2015 and is also a trustee of the Royal Albert Hall.
His private Twitter account states that he is based in Berkshire, presumably the location of his cover photo, which shows a grand mansion overlooking a tree-lined lake.
What’s his relationship with the PM and the Conservatives?
Johnson is not the first prime minister Brownlow has connections with. The former cop has dined with David Cameron and had a dinner with Theresa May at Chequers in November 2017. Following her resignation in 2019, May recommended Lord Brownlow for a life peerage and his seat in the House of Lords.
The peer served as vice-chairman of the Conservatives between July 2017 and July 2020 and has a long history of donations to the Conservative party. He recently became one of the party’s biggest donors, donating more than £3 million to the Tories since 2005, either personally or through his recruitment firm, Huntswood. Over the years, he has given money to May’s Maidenhead constituency office and donated £100,000 to the Stronger In campaign during the Brexit referendum.
He is also one of the biggest investors in Samantha Cameron’s designer fashion label Cefinn, via his firm Havisham Assets Limited. “I am joining the company in part because I like the management team,” he said of the chic London-based clothing business, which sells dresses from £250 and was losing more than £500,000 a year at the time Brownlow took a 10 per cent stake in 2018. His investment overall totalled £2.6 million, with The Times describing the peer as Cameron’s “white knight” rescuer.
“I like the creative direction of the business,” he said at the time, denying that the investment had anything to do with his links to the Camerons because he saw himself as “a businessman”. “I am joining because it’s a business I like and I want to help it grow.”
Little is known about Brownlow’s personal relationship with current prime minister Boris Johnson but a report this week found that his company Huntswood has been awarded access to several public sector contracts over recent years. The firm was included in a £120 million framework agreement for the provision of “skilled person reports” to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in 2016.
According to the Byline Times, Huntswood was also given a £60,000 contract to conduct a complaints-handling review on behalf of the Student Loans Company in 2017, raising further questions as to whether companies with close ties to the government should be allowed to win public sector contracts.
Why did he donate towards the refurb at Number 11?
Many have questioned why Brownlow would donate such a large sum towards Johnson’s home makeover. It is not the first time he has dug deep to help the Conservatives, but why almost £60,000?
The peer clearly has an interest in high-end property. His business interests include Havisham Homes, which builds luxury multimillion pound mansions in and around Berkshire, and he has spoken in the past of wanting to make a difference. “You need to have happiness and purpose in your life,” Brownlow said when asked about his charitable foundation in 2015. “It is important as a successful entrepreneur to make a contribution, to make a difference to people’s lives – that is what gives me the most satisfaction.”
If reports of Brownlow’s donation are true, the difference will certainly be felt by Johnson and Symonds in terms of home comforts. Whether the couple are feeling quite so comfortable after this week’s revelations remains to be seen.