Boris Johnson ‘to blame new phone number’ for failure to reveal WhatsApp messages on luxury flat refit

Prime minister expected to apologise to his adviser who was ‘misled’ over appeal for funds

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 06 January 2022 14:09
Comments
Can Boris Johnson weather the storm of sleaze allegations? | Behind The Headlines

Boris Johnson is expected to blame a new mobile phone number for his failure to reveal WhatsApp messages crucial to the investigation into his lavish Downing Street flat refurbishment.

The prime minister is also expected to apologise to Christopher Geidt – his adviser who was “misled” when he cleared Mr Johnson of wrongdoing – in letters to be released later today.

Lord Geidt is poised to issue a stinging rebuke and demand an overhaul of the No 10 operation, to avoid a repeat of the episode, after reopening his probe last month.

However, he is not expected to conclude the ministerial code was broken – although Mr Johnson still faces the threat of a further inquiry by the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

The controversy over the £112,000 refit was reignited when an Electoral Commission report revealed Mr Johnson personally asked for more funds for the redecorations, in 2020.

Yet – three months later – he told Lord Geidt that he nothing about the way the work was being funded, leading to the adviser’s inquiry clearing him.

A government insider told the Financial Times: “The prime minister has told Geidt that he did not see the WhatsApp messages because he changed his phone number.”

Mr Johnson was forced to change his mobile number in April last year after his longstanding number was found to have been in the public domain for 15 years.

It is unclear why the messages were then made available to the Electoral Commission inquiry – and No 10 declined to answer questions, ahead of the publication of letters between the prime minister and Lord Geidt.

Interviewed at a vaccination centre, Mr Johnson was asked if he expected people to believe he had forgotten to disclose key evidence because it was no longer stored on his phone, replying: “I followed the ministerial guidance at all times – and yes.”

The adviser’s report, in May last year, found the prime minister had acted “unwisely” in failing to ask proper questions about the redecorations, but cleared him of wrongdoing.

But, in December, the Commission revealed messages were sent by Mr Johnson to Tory donor Lord Brownlow, who helped fund the works, asking him to “authorise” further payments.

Furthermore, a year earlier, “Lord Brownlow confirmed to the prime minister that he had approved further works”, the watchdog stated.

No 10 denied Mr Johnson lied to Lord Geidt – 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 watchdog ruled the Conservative party broke electoral law in the way it attempted to fund the refurbishment. For months, ministers refused to admit the party, and then a major donor, originally funded it.

The verdict – and a £17,800 fine – brought allegations of sleaze against the prime minister back centre-stage, as he is dogged by claims of misleading the public over 2020 No 10 Christmas parties.

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