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The Prime Minister hit back after his party was fined £17,800 yesterday for not registering a £52,000 donation from Conservative peer and businessman Lord Brownlow last year. A probe by the Electoral Commission revealed the payment connected to redecorating the No 11 apartment was kept off the books.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner accused Mr Johnson of having “lied” to his own standards adviser Lord Geidt by saying he did not know who was behind the donation.
The new probe found evidence Mr Johnson sent Lord Brownlow a WhatsApp text in November 2020 asking him to authorise “further, at that stage unspecified refurbishment works on the residence”. The peer agreed. The commission ruled the Tory party did not follow the law over cash from Lord Brownlow to help cover the revamp, with costs exceeding £112,500.
It said the party failed to “accurately report a donation and keep a proper accounting record”.
Mr Johnson told aides he could not afford the revamp due to spiralling costs and the fact it could not be covered by his £30,000-a-year prime ministerial allowance. He has since said he has covered all the costs out of his own pocket.
No 10 insisted Mr Johnson had followed the rules “at all times” and “made all necessary declarations”.
A Tory spokesman called it a “technical breach” of the law and said the party was considering appealing against the commission’s ruling.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had not lied to Lord Geidt despite telling him he had no knowledge of the payments until immediately before news reports emerged in
February. No 10 said this was because the PM did not know Lord Brownlow was the donor providing money to the “blind trust” he organised.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “Lord Brownlow was the chair of a blind trust and acted in accordance with his experience of managing blind trusts in that way.
“The Prime Minister’s discussions with Lord Brownlow were done without him knowing the underlying donor of that donation.”
In May, Lord Geidt said despite “some limited” contact, the “record shows no evidence that the Prime Minister had been informed by Lord Brownlow that he had personally settled the total costs”.
Lord Geidt said he tested the assertions that Mr Johnson did not know “either the fact or the method of the costs of refurbishing the apartment having been paid”. He said people involved “confirmed to me that these assertions are correct”. He added: “I have also spoken in similar terms to the Prime Minister, who confirms that he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.”
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But the Electoral Commission said on November 29 last year, Mr Johnson sent the WhatsApp message to Lord Brownlow requesting funding be signed off.
It said the Tory party had repeatedly claimed the money was not a donation per se and described it vari- ously as “a donation to the Prime Minister via the party”, a “ministerial matter”, the repayment of a loan, and, at one stage a “gift to the nation”.
It found the party failed to fully report a donation in October 2020 from Huntswood Associates – whose director is Lord Brownlow – including £52,801.72 connected to refurbishment costs.
The company transferred £67,801.72 to the Conservative party on October 19 2020.
Some £15,000 of that was for an event, 2,400 pages of evidence established.
But the commission said Lord Brownlow “specifically identified the remaining £52,801 as a donation to cover an earlier payment made by the party to the Cabinet Office”.
The Cabinet Office paid three invoices totalling the same amount in summer 2020 for the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat, provided the sum would be repaid by the party.
But after the fallout, Mr Johnson agreed to pay the full amount himself.
The Cabinet Office was repaid by the supplier – Soane Britain owned by interior designer Lulu Lytle – in March 2021, then it refunded the Tory party. But the commission said records submitted in January 2021 showed the party reported £15,000 from Huntswood Associates but not the £52,801.
It also said the party’s reference to its £52,801 payment for the refurbishment was not accurate as it was referred to as a “blind trust loan”. The report said an extra £59,747.40 was paid direct to Soane Britain by Huntswood Associates, taking the total to £112,549.12.
Analysis by LEO McKINSTRY
It is exactly two years ago this weekend since Boris Johnson won his landslide victory in the 2019 General Election.
In the wake of this triumph, buttressed by his 80-seat majority and on the verge of delivering Brexit, his hold on his party and the country seemed to be assured.
How different the political landscape appears today. Downing Street is in turmoil, his MPs in revolt and his authority in crisis. As his approval ratings plummet, there is even talk at Westminster of a vote of no confidence in his leadership. “We’re nearing the end,” says one backbencher.
The immediate cause of this meltdown is Covid. Confronted by a surge in infections and Omicron, ministers this week imposed “Plan B”, which includes mandatory face masks, vaccine passports and orders to work from home.
But as many as 60 Tory MPs plan to vote against it next week in what could be the biggest rebellion of the premiership.
Part of this hostility stems from a traditional, liberal dislike of authoritarian state intervention. Many MPs are also dismayed at the “baffling” and “illogical” contradictions of Plan B, such as the encouragement to go to office parties but to avoid the office.
But perhaps the biggest catalyst of backbench disillusion are the allegations about the series of parties held in Downing Street last November and December, in clear breach of lockdown regulations.
These claims are under investigation but they have already cost top aide Allegra Stratton her job and, more importantly, have shattered credibility in implementing a new crackdown.
“Why shouldn’t I tell my constituents to treat those rules exactly the same way as No 10 treated last year’s rules?” asked Philip Davies MP.
Yet Mr Johnson’s problems go much deeper. There is also profound concern over Downing Street’s cavalier attitude towards standards in public life, reflected in trying to get discredited ex-minister Owen Paterson off the hook after his outrageous breach of lobbying rules.
It was the Paterson fiasco that was really the start of the current troubles, now compounded by more scandals and failures. Only yesterday, the Conservative Party was fined £17,800 by the Electoral Commission over the handling of donations for the refurbishment of the PM’s Downing Street flat.
An air of dysfunction now pervades, epitomised by Mr Johnson’s shambolic speech last month to the CBI or the chaos over the Afghanistan withdrawal or the Channel migration crisis. An absence of maturity among No 10 advisers is compounded by the lack of any coherent strategy built on a Conservative agenda.
Many Tories complain that, since Brexit, the Government’s approach has been dominated by progressive ideas, such as hefty tax and spending increases and transgender ideology. Even this week’s 10-year drugs plan put far more emphasis – and public money – on support for users than the enforcement of the criminal law.
Next week’s by-election in Mr Paterson’s former seat of North Shropshire is a crucial test.
If the Tories’ 23,000 majority is overturned, then the vultures will really start to circle over Downing Street.
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