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Boris Johnson has issued a “humble and sincere apology” to his independent adviser on ministerial standards after failing to disclose online exchanges with a Tory donor about the £112,000 refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
– What was in the messages?
In November 2020 the Prime Minister sent a Whatsapp message to Lord Brownlow complaining the flat over No 11 was still “a bit of a tip” and asking his approval for interior designer Lulu Lytle to begin the work.
The peer, who was supposed to be setting up a trust to maintain the flat (although it never got off the ground), assured him he would get it sorted and that approval was “a doddle as it’s only me and I know where the £ will come from”.
– Why does this matter?
In May last year Mr Johnson asked Lord Geidt, his standards adviser, to investigate claims he had secretly asked Tory donors to pay for the lavish revamp which far exceeded the £30,000 official allowance.
Lord Geidt found the costs had been met initially by the Cabinet Office and subsequently were recharged to the Conservative Party, with Lord Brownlow settling one invoice out of his own pocket.
However, he said there was no evidence Mr Johnson had been aware of the payments until February 2021 when he paid the full amount himself.
He concluded that while the Prime Minister should have shown “more rigorous regard” for the way the revamp was funded, there had been no breach of the Ministerial Code.
At that stage, however, Lord Geidt, was not aware of the “missing exchange” with Lord Brownlow.
– So how did the messages come to light?
They were disclosed by Lord Brownlow in a subsequent inquiry by the Electoral Commission, which led to the Conservative Party being fined £17,800 for failing properly to declare a £67,800 donation from a firm controlled by the peer, some of which was originally used to help pay for the refurbishment.
– What reason has Mr Johnson given for not disclosing them in Lord Geidt’s original inquiry?
The Prime Minister told Lord Geidt that he did not recall the messages.
The exchanges were on an old mobile phone which Mr Johnson had been forced to give up after it emerged the number had been available online for 15 years.
As a result, the messages had not be available to search.
– What was Lord Geidt’s reaction?
Lord Geidt said the exchanges were “highly material” to his inquiry and it “shook my confidence” in the system that no-one in government had alerted him to their existence, even though the phone had subsequently been accessed “for another purpose”.
While he said they would not have changed his original finding in relation to the Ministerial Code, he doubted whether he would have concluded “without qualification” that Mr Johnson had declared the payments as soon as he became aware of them.
– What has Mr Johnson said?
The Prime Minister said it was “unacceptable” the Cabinet office had not made Lord Geidt aware of the messages and offered a “humble and sincere apology”.
He promised him more support in carrying out his work and to strengthen his powers to ensure he was given all the information he required in future inquiries.