Boris Johnson: Ex-standards chief leads calls to reopen probes into flat refit after PM ‘misled’ inquiry

‘The prime minister is in breach of both the ministerial code and the seven principles of public life’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 10 December 2021 07:27
Can Boris Johnson weather the storm of sleaze allegations? | Behind The Headlines

An ex-standards chief is leading demands to reopen investigations into the funding of Boris Johnson’s lavish flat refurbishment, after evidence that he “misled” an inquiry that cleared him of wrongdoing.

Opposition parties joined Sir Alistair Graham in hitting out at the prime minister’s conduct – as the Electoral Commission also ruled the Conservatives broke electoral law over the controversy.

The spotlight fell on Mr Johnson when its report revealed he personally asked for more funds for the redecorations, despite claiming – three months later – that he knew nothing about any payments by donors.

Sir Alistair, a former chair of the committee on standards in public life, said he had clearly “misled” his own ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, by making the later claim.

He called for Lord Geidt to reopen his probe – which found, in May, there had been no breach of the ministerial code – and “reconsider his conclusions”.

On Thursday evening, The Daily Telegraph reported that Lord Geidt was considering resigning if Mr Johnson failed to adequately explain why evidence relating to the refubishment of the Downing Street flat was not shared with him – piling further pressure on the prime minister.

Labour said Mr Johnson had “lied”, urging the parliamentary commissioner for standards to step in, while the Scottish National Party (SNP) called for Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, and Lord Geidt to investigate jointly.

Sir Alistair went further, telling The Independent: “The prime minister is in breach of both the ministerial code and the seven principles of public life. He therefore has to resign, or the Tory Party has to sack him.”

The commission’s report put allegations of sleaze back centre-stage – as Mr Johnson is also facing allegations of misleading the public over last year’s Christmas parties in No 10.

That controversy also deepened, as it was revealed the cabinet secretary will investigate two more gatherings – one hosted in No 10 in November and one at the Department for Education (DfE).

For months, after the revelation of the costly refit of the flat – above No 11 Downing Street – emerged, Mr Johnson refused to confirm that the Tory party, and then a major donor, originally funded it.

In other developments in the controversy:

* No 10 refused to release WhatsApp messages sent by the prime minister, requesting further works on the flat – which the Cabinet Office denied existed, after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

* The commission said the total refurbishment bill, eventually met by Mr Johnson, was £112,549.12 – far higher than thought – but his payments were “outside the scope of our investigation”.

* It fined the Conservatives a total of £17,800 for failing to report donations properly. However, it is limited to £20,000 for a single offence – after the government rejected a recommendation of £500,000.

* The report said the Tory treasurer rejected an “opportunity to discuss matters in person”. The party said, nevertheless, it is considering an appeal.

* The Independent understands the WhatsApp messages will be released to parliament’s standards commissioner, should she start an investigation and request them.

In May, Lord Geidt reported there was “no evidence” that Mr Johnson had been told by Tory donor Lord Brownlow that he had paid a bill for the refurbishment.

The conclusion was based on the prime minister’s testimony that “he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021”.

But the Electoral Commission report revealed that – in November 2020 – he “messaged Lord Brownlow via WhatsApp” to ask him to “authorise” further redecorations.

Furthermore, in early December, “Lord Brownlow confirmed to the prime minister that he had approved further works”, the watchdog stated.

Mr Johnson’s spokesman, asked if he had lied to Lord Geidt, replied: “No” – arguing he had known only that Lord Brownlow was handling the funding, not that he was the source of the money.

He had contacted him, in November 2020, because he was the administrator of a blind trust to fund the works – despite the commission report stating “the trust had not been formed”.

The spokesman said the prime minister was “not aware” that Lord Brownlow was “the underlying donor” until “immediately prior to media reports in February 2021”.

“Lord Brownlow was appointed by the PM as chair of the trust on 23 June and Lord Geidt’s report notes that Lord Brownlow behaved in a confidential manner, consistent with his own experience of blind trusts,” he said.

But Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, in a letter to the standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, called for “an immediate investigation into the conduct of the prime minister in this scandal”.

She has powers to suspend an MP – which can lead to a recall petition and a potential by-election – but said she would not investigate until the commission had finished its probe.

Ms Rayner wrote: “Today’s report demonstrates that the prime minister has failed to declare donations which appears to put him in clear breach of the members’ code of conduct, as well as the Conservative Party having breached its own legal obligations.”

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