Boris Johnson flat refurbishment reignites after WhatsApp messages to donor emerge

Prime minister cleared of wrongdoing but criticised for behaviour during standards inquiry

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the House of Commons in London on January 5. AFP
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was heavily criticised for his behaviour during an investigation into the funding of his Downing Street apartment refurbishment, but cleared of wrongdoing.

The government failed to disclose all necessary evidence for the inquiry into the matter, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Christopher Geidt, said in letters to Mr Johnson that were published on Thursday.

“The greatest possible care should have been taken to assemble all relevant material and this standard has not been met,” Mr Geidt wrote.

He said that the missing disclosure had exposed a “signal deficiency” in standards.

“Insufficient regard and respect” to the independent adviser’s role had been shown, Mr Geidt said, and “potential and real failures of process occurred".

In his letter to Mr Geidt, Mr Johnson offered his “humble and sincere apology” and said that the investigative role was “critical for the effective government of this country".

Although cleared of breaching the ministerial code, it marks a new setback for Britain’s leader as he tries to get back on track.

Mr Johnson endured a torrid end to 2021 with ethics scandals, increasingly rebellious Conservative MPs and the opposition Labour Party gaining in the polls.

Christmas parties

He is also awaiting the verdict of an inquiry into reported Christmas parties held at Downing Street in breach of pandemic rules, the result of which could further damage his administration.

Mr Geidt originally cleared him in May, but reviewed his findings after another investigation showed he had not seen all of Mr Johnson’s correspondence on the refurbishment when compiling his report.

At issue was whether Mr Johnson took an undeclared loan from a political donor to cover the costs of refitting his Downing Street apartment.

In Mr Geidt’s initial investigation, Mr Johnson said he knew nothing of how the works were financed until just before press reports emerged in February 2021.

But that was called into question in December, when the Electoral Commission fined his Conservative Party over the apartment matter.

WhatsApp Messages

It quoted a WhatsApp exchange between Mr Johnson and Tory peer David Brownlow in November 2020, in which the prime minister asked him to authorise more refurbishment works to his apartment.

The investigation found that Mr Brownlow agreed and said that, while a proposed blind trust to pay for the works had not yet been established, “he knew where the funding was coming from".

In the letters published on Thursday, Mr Geidt said he “recognised” Mr Johnson’s view that the WhatsApp messages were still consistent with him not knowing that Mr Brownlow had met the costs “personally".

But he also said the failure to alert him to the WhatsApp messages had been “unwise” and that the incident “shook my confidence”.

Donor’s plan

In another potentially damaging revelation, the WhatsApp messages, which were included in the letters published on Thursday, appeared to show Mr Johnson offering a favour to Mr Brownlow.

In the exchange, Mr Johnson said: “Am on the great exhibition plan. Will revert.”

That seemed to refer to plans for a festival celebrating British life, which Mr Brownlow also discussed with culture secretary Oliver Dowden in January last year, official records show.

Mr Johnson’s spokesman Jamie Davies said plans for such an event were never “taken forward".

Instead, the government had since announced “Festival UK” taking place this year, Mr Davies said.

After his investigation into the Downing Street flat, Mr Geidt said he wanted to strengthen the role of the independent adviser “in terms of considerably greater authority, independence and effect".

Updated: January 07, 2022, 7:29 AM