Boris Johnson’s standards watchdog issued damning new findings on the row over the lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat on Thursday, but stood by an earlier decision to clear him of breaching the ministerial code.
Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, delivered a series of scathing criticisms of why he was not told about WhatsApp messages between Mr Johnson and Tory donor Lord Brownlow.
The peer initially put more than £50,000 towards doing up the flat above No11 with luxury wallpaper and other improvements, though, after a furious row over the issue Mr Johnson picked up the bill.
However, Lord Geidt who investigated the funding of the flat upgrade, which seemingly was going to be made through a trust, was not told about the WhatsApp messages.
He only discovered the existence of the “Missing Exchange” through media reports after they emerged through an investigation by the Electoral Commission.
Mr Johnson blamed the fact that they were not highlighted on him having to change his mobile phone for security reasons and that he “did not recall the message exchange”.
In one of them, he asked the peer: “I am afraid parts of our flat are still a bit of a tip and am keen to allow (designer) Lulu Lytle to get on with it. Can I possibly ask her to get in touch with you for approvals?”
Mr Johnson has given a “humble and sincere” apology to Lord Geidt for him not being given all the relevant information.
But the peer’s anger over not being told about the Whatsapp messages was laid bare in an exchange of letters with the PM.
In them, he stressed:
* “It is plainly unsatisfactory that my earlier advice was unable to rely on the fullest possible disclosure of relevant information.”
* “Had I been aware of the Missing Exchange I 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.
* “I would also have wished to ask the Prime Minister about his understanding of what Lord Brownlow meant in saying ‘I know where the £ will come from’, in the context of informing him that the Trust was not yet established, but would be from January.
* I wrote in my report that ‘at no point in the eight months until late February 2021, as media reports were emerging, was the prime minister made aware of either the fact or the method of the costs of refurbishing the apartment having been paid’. Had I been aware of the Missing Exchange, I would have had further questions and drawn attention to the exchange in my report. That is not to say that the communications I have now seen prove that the Prime Minister was so aware. However, I would have wished to examine further the validity of the statement (also in my report) that ‘the Prime Minister knew nothing about such payments’.
* More crucially, 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.”
* On the mobile phone situation, he added: “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 also emphasised to the PM: “You had also stated that you could not recall any messages not hitherto disclosed having passed between you and Lord Brownlow.
“Even if you had no such recollection, I am told that Downing Street maintained close contact with him. Lord Brownlow had evidently given assurance that he had records of conversations and contacts with you.”
* He added: “I note that Lord Brownlow offered to furnish the Cabinet Office with all the material (which would include the Missing Exchange) that he would be providing to the Electoral Commission. The offer was not accepted by the Cabinet Office, thus having the effect of excluding the Missing Exchange from the documentary record that was provided to me. It seems extraordinary that the offer was not accepted by the Cabinet Office.”
* “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.”* “Delaying or, for whatever reason (such as some legal obstacle), withholding relevant information from the Independent Adviser is inherently unwise.”
* “As a result, I believe this episode demonstrated insufficient regard or respect for the role of Independent Adviser.”
* “Alas, 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.”
In a letter to Lord Geidt, Mr Johnson stressed the peer, who did not specifically criticise the Prime Minister, had identified a number of shortcomings in the way matters were handled.
“I am sorry that the Office of Independent Adviser has been put in this position and can only repeat the humble and sincere apology I gave when we discussed this matter earlier,” he added.
He also criticised the Cabinet Office for not alerting the peer to the situation regarding the “Missing Exchange”.
The Cabinet Office had declined to accept details from Lord Brownlow to prevent any “risk of collusion in a statutory investigation” by the Electoral Commission.
Lord Geidt has demanded a series of reforms to improve the scrutiny provided by the ministerial watchdog, with Mr Johnson backing more support from officials and that his office should “be afforded the highest standards of support and attention when pursuing your work”.
But Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Boris Johnson has little regard for the rules or the truth. The Ministerial Code requires ministers to act with transparency and honesty. It is simply impossible to read these exchanges and conclude that the Prime Minister has not breached these aspects of the Code.
“Once again, by attempting to hide the truth, Boris Johnson undermines his own office. The Prime Minister’s pathetic excuses will fool no one.”
Last month, the Electoral Commission revealed that Mr Johnson had sent Lord Brownlow a WhatsApp message in November 2020 “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence”.
But Mr Johnson had previously said he had no knowledge of the payments coming from Lord Brownlow’s own pocket until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.
The investigation prompted Lord Geidt to demand clarification from No10 amid claims that he had been misled by the Prime Minister.
Downing Street said previously that the Prime Minster was “not aware of the underlying details” of Lord Brownlow’s donations, when asked about the apparent discrepancy between what he told Lord Geidt and what the Electoral Commission said.
Lord Geidt previously cleared the Prime Minister of breaching the code in relation to the funding of the flat refurbishment and has stood by this finding.
But the Electoral Commission fined the Conservatives £17,800 after it found the party had not followed the law over donations by Lord Brownlow to help cover the renovations, with costs exceeding £112,500.
The watchdog said the Tories had failed to “accurately report a donation and keep a proper accounting record” of the money handed over by the peer in October 2020.