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Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards, has published his long awaited exchange of letters with Boris Johnson over new information relating to the lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
The controversy was thrust back into the spotlight in early December after the Electoral Commission fined the Tory party £17,800 for failing to properly declare donations from the Tory peer Lord Brownlow to help cover the cost of the works on the flat.
The Commission’s report also revealed the existence of a previously undisclosed WhatsApp exchange between the Tory peer and Mr Johnson in which the Prime Minister asked him to authorise further refurbishment works on the residence.
The details of three WhatsApp messages were made public today as the Cabinet office published an exchange of three letters between Lord Geidt and Mr Johnson last month.
And while the independent adviser concludes that the existence of what he describes as “the missing exchange” does not alter his “fundamental assessment that no conflict (or reasonably perceived conflict) arose as a result of the interests created by the payment”, Lord Geidt’s letters are damning of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street operation – if not directly of Mr Johnson himself.
Lord Geidt says it was ‘unsatisfactory’ that his original conclusions were based on incomplete evidence
In his first letter on December 17, which runs to a total of six pages and includes the crucial WhatsApp messages between Mr Johnson and Lord Brownlow, Lord Geidt writes that the emergence of the new information from the Electoral Commission on December 9 had led him to question his earlier conclusions in clearing the PM.
“You will understand that this new information and its omission from the original exercise has caused me to test my confidence in my earlier conclusions,” Lord Geidt writes. “It is plainly unsatisfactory that my earlier advice was unable to rely on the fullest possible disclosure of relevant information,” he goes on to say.
Number 10 scolded for failing to disclose missing WhatsApp messages
Lord Geidt says greater effort should have been taken by Number 10 to identify and disclose the missing WhatsApp messages.
He writes: “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.
I consider that the greatest possible care should have been taken to assemble all relevant material and this standard has not been met.
He goes on to say the Cabinet Office should have made greater efforts to obtain the messages from Lord Brownlow.
He says: “Lord Brownlow had evidently given assurance that he had records of conversations and contacts with you.
“Accordingly, at a time when these contacts were not only under public scrutiny but also the subject of my own inquiry, it is unsatisfactory that this was not checked with him more thoroughly, including as part of the Cabinet Office’s work.
“It seems extraordinary that the offer was not accepted by the Cabinet Office. Moreover, at no stage was I made aware that the offer by Lord Brownlow to share this information had earlier been made and had not been taken up.”
Downing Street should have notified Lord Geidt once the messages came to light
Lord Geidt is also damning of officials’ failure to contact him once the details of the Electoral Commission’s report had been made public.
He writes: “The fact remains, however, that, as soon as the Missing Exchange came to light, Downing Street made no attempt to inform the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser.
On the day of publication of the Electoral Commission’s final report (Thursday 9 December), it would have been reasonable, to put it mildly, for the Independent Adviser to have been informed immediately once the single fact emerged that the Missing Exchange had come to light.
“Instead, I knew nothing of the report’s publication at all on the day until privately alerted by others to media reporting. I received a first call from the Cabinet Office only that afternoon.”
Role of Independent Adviser was undermined
The independent adviser concludes in his December 17 letter that if he had known about the missing exchange of WhatsApp messages between the PM and Lord Brownlow he “would have had further questions for the Prime Minister about what he understood to be the position in relation to whether and how the costs of refurbishment had been paid.”
In particular he says he would have pushed harder to find out what Lord Brownlow meant when he wrote in one of his messages to Mr Johnson ‘I know where the £ will come from’.
While he fails to criticise Mr Johnson directly he adds: “This episode demonstrated insufficient regard or respect for the role of Independent Adviser.”
He goes on to say: “These incremental efforts to reclaim public confidence, made with your active support and encouragement, have again been placed at risk by the evident failure to meet the very highest standards of disclosure expected in this present case.”
He adds: “I doubt whether I would have concluded, without qualification, what is set out in paragraph 33 of my report, that ‘at the point when the Prime Minister became aware, he took steps to make the relevant declaration and to seek advice’.”
Failures of process in more than one part of government
In his final letter of December 23, written following Mr Johnson’s “humble” apology in response to his first letter, Lord Geidt says: “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.”