Can Boris survive? PM clings on with sleaze watchdog ‘on the brink of quitting’ over Downing St flat ‘lies’, spin chief accused of giving out prizes at ‘illegal’ Xmas party, Tory revolt over Covid curbs, polls in freefall… and a new baby to deal with
- An official report revealed that the Prime Minister had texted Tory donor Lord Brownlow asking for more cash
- Mr Johnson told standards adviser Lord Geidt he did not know who was paying for the £112,549 flat refurb
- No10 says he was contacting Lord Brownlow because he was head of proposed trust and did not know source
- There were reports last night that Lord Geidt is on the brink of resigning over claims the PM misled him
- PM could now face yet another probe into ‘Wallpapergate’ scandal, which was exposed by the Daily Mail
Storm clouds are gathering around Boris Johnson today amid claims his standards watchdog is on the verge of quitting over ‘lies’ about funding of the lavish Downing Street flat refurbishment.
The PM is fighting on a bewildering range of fronts after the row over the No11 caught fire again, with an Electoral Commission probe revealing that he personally messaged a Tory donor to ask for works to be underwritten.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s director of communications, Jack Doyle, has been dragged into the separate ‘partygate’ furore, with claims he gave a speech and handed out prizes at a lockdown-busting festive gathering in Downing Street last year.
Tories are also in open revolt about new coronavirus restrictions to combat the surging Omicron strain, while long-running sleaze accusations appear to be hitting the party in the polls ahead of a crucial by-election in North Shropshire next week.
Despite his huge 80-strong majority won just two years ago, Mr Johnson – who must contend with sleepless nights after becoming a father again yesterday – is now facing serious speculation about his future.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, is treasurer of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, delivered a thinly-veiled warning this morning, saying that Mr Johnson must stabilise the ship over Christmas.
‘He’s got to come clean on a lot of the issues that you mentioned in your opening news,’ the veteran MP said.
‘We’re all about to go for a Christmas break. If he comes back in the new year refreshed, able to differentiate between his private life and public life, and clarify all the issues and then start to do the really big issues that this country needs – restoring the NHS, dealing with carbon emissions and Cop26, how we deal with the economy, helping businesses – we can really get onto that agenda away from these other, sort of, personal issues, then I think he’s fine.
‘But if we go on having these – what I call personal issues, issues of judgment by the Prime Minister – then I think that’s a very different scenario.’
In a round of interviews this morning, business minister Paul Scully said: ‘Look, I feel very comfortable about the Prime Minister’s integrity. Clearly though, I don’t feel comfortable about the fact that it’s been a difficult week for the Government.’
In the latest bombshell developments today:
- Labour has written to Lord Geidt urging him to reopen his investigation into the No11 flat refurbishment;
- Keir Starmer’s MPs are set to bail out Mr Johnson by supporting ‘Plan B’ Covid restrictions in a crunch vote next week, with scores of Tories vowing to rebel;
- New figures showed the economy stalled in October, growing just 0.1 per cent, even before the measures to tackle Omicron come into effect.
Storm clouds are gathering around Boris Johnson (pictured left leaving No10 yesterday and right at hospital to see his new baby) amid claims his standards watchdog is on the verge of quitting over ‘lies’ about funding of the lavish Downing Street flat refurbishment
The Electoral Commission fined the Conservatives £17,800 for failing to properly declare almost £68,000 mostly used to pay for the refurbishment of the private quarters used by Mr Johnson, his wife Carrie and their son Wilfred. Above: The flat was designed by Lulu Lyttle in a similar style to the above
There were reports last night that Lord Geidt (left) is on the brink of resigning over claims the PM misled him. Meanwhile, Jack Doyle (right), the PM’s top spin doctor, has been dragged into the ‘partygate’ row with claims he made a ‘thank you’ speech to up to 50 people who attended the Downing Street bash on December 18 last year
Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie has just given birth to their second child (pictured together in June this year)
What happened in the ‘Wallpapergate’ scandal?
What work was done?
interior designer Lulu Lytle transformed the living quarters from what the PM’s wife Carrie reportedly felt was a ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ left behind by Theresa May. The new look included gold wallpaper costing £840 a roll.
How much did it cost?
The designer was paid £112,549.12.
Who paid for it?
Initially the Cabinet Office settled the bill. But because it was significantly above the £30,000 annual public grant for work to the flat, officials set up a charitable trust for donations to cover the costs.
The Tory party repaid the Cabinet Office, then Tory donor and trust chairman Lord Brownlow and his firm made a donation to the party as well as paying some money directly to the supplier. Eventually the PM paid the designer personally.
Did this break any rules?
The Electoral Commission has found that the Conservative Party broke the law by failing to declare most of the money it received from Lord Brownlow as a donation.
What about the PM’s role?
He had been cleared by sleaze watchdog Lord Geidt of breaching the ministerial code on the basis that he claimed he knew nothing about the complex funding arrangements until February.
This has been called into question as the Electoral Commission has found evidence that Mr Johnson messaged Lord Brownlow asking for money the previous November.
What happens next?
Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone may choose to investigate Mr Johnson for breaking the MPs’ Code of Conduct by failing to declare donations.
In one of the potentially explosive situations for the premier, there are reports that Lord Geidt, his Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, is considering his position.
Mr Johnson previously assured Lord Geidt, a former private secretary to the Queen, that he did not know who was paying for the refurbishment – which was ordered by his wife Carrie Johnson – until February.
But an official report by the Electoral Commission yesterday revealed that the Prime Minister had texted Tory donor Lord Brownlow in November asking for more works to be signed off.
The findings open the door for yet another probe into the ‘Wallpapergate’ scandal, exposed by the Daily Mail.
Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson had not lied to his adviser, pointing out that Lord Brownlow was head of a proposed trust that was meant to raise money for the refurbishment – although the idea was later abandoned – and the premier did not know the source of the money.
A No10 spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister has acted in accordance with the rules at all times and he acted following discussions with Lord Geidt. He has made all necessary declarations.’
The commission fined the Conservative Party £17,800 for failing to declare donations properly over the saga, although it is mulling an appeal.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the standards adviser could quit as soon as today if Mr Johnson does not satisfactorily explain why he did not share vital information with him – although the BBC said sources had played down the prospect of an imminent departure.
Dominic Cummings, who was in Downing Street when the expensive redecoration works were being planned for the living quarters above No 11, has waded into the spat again.
He wrote on Twitter that he had told the PM ‘in extremely blunt and unrepeatable terms’ in January and the summer of 2020 ‘his desire for secret donations to fund wallpaper etc was illegal and unethical’.
Mr Cummings said: ‘He pursued it throughout the year trying to keep me/others in dark and lied to Geidt/CCHQ [Conservative Party headquarters] to cover it up.’
He added: ‘I’ve said repeatedly for months: a) obviously PM lied to Geidt, b) Geidt could only conclude as he did by … not interviewing anybody actually involved with the flat!’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also took to Twitter to take aim at the PM and branded him ‘unfit to lead’.
The new revelations plunge the PM further into crisis after his Government was rocked by news earlier this week that an ‘illegal’ Christmas Party was held at Downing Street when the capital was in Tier 3 lockdown restrictions last year.
Mr Doyle, then the PM’s Deputy Director of Communications, is said to have made a ‘thank you’ speech to up to 50 people who attended the bash on December 18 last year.
ITV News claimed that Mr Doyle also handed out paper certificates to members of the communications team as part of a ‘joke awards ceremony’.
The former journalist has been overseeing the response to the allegations, with Number 10 denying that it amounted to a ‘party’. But extraordinary leaked video footage of a mock press conference showed Downing Street staff giggling about the ‘cheese and wine’ gathering, sparking the resignation of spokeswoman Allegra Stratton.
The controversial gathering is now the subject of an internal investigation by the Cabinet Office, along with another leaving do where Mr Johnson is said to have given a speech.
Mr Johnson has flatly denied being aware a party had happened, but the apparent attendance by one of his closest aides raises fresh questions.
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives said he would have to quit if he was found to have lied about the party when he denied it had taken place in the House of Commons.
Lockdown-sceptic Tories say at least 60 Tory backbenchers are ready to rebel in a vote next week on Mr Johnson’s imposition of Plan B measures to combat the Omicron variant.
To make matters worse for the beleaguered PM, two national polls showed how the the Conservatives have slumped in popularity in recent days, with one showing how Labour now have a six-point lead.
In February this year the Mail revealed Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie had been plotting against a ‘female Whitehall official who refused to sign off a large taxpayers’ bill for her refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, including expensive wallpaper’.
The Mail then revealed how secret plans had been hatched to get Tory donors to pay for the decoration by interior designer Lulu Lytle, as the PM privately complained he could not afford the ‘gold wallpaper’ Mrs Johnson was buying. There was also a scheme to set up a charitable trust for the maintenance of the historic Downing Street buildings, with Tory donor Lord Brownlow made its chairman.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who learned of the machinations through this newspaper, began investigating and passed his findings to ministerial watchdog Lord Geidt.
In May Lord Geidt cleared the PM of breaching the ministerial code, only saying that he had ‘unwisely’ ‘allowed the refurbishment of the apartment at No 11 Downing Street to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded’.
This conclusion was based on Mr Johnson telling him ‘that he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021’.
But a separate investigation by the Electoral Commission uncovered evidence that on November 29, 2020, the PM ‘messaged Lord Brownlow via WhatsApp asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence’.
The report provides the most detailed account yet of the complex web of payments, which it has now emerged totalled £112,549.12, involved in doing up the flat.
The Cabinet Office paid the invoices initially, the money was subsequently repaid by CCHQ and then Lord Brownlow and his firm Huntswood Associates made donations to the party to cover the costs. To clear up the mess, Mr Johnson covered the bill personally earlier this year.
The Electoral Commission found that the majority of the £67,801 given to the Tories by Lord Brownlow’s firm last October should have been reported as a donation, but was not.
The party was fined for ‘failing to accurately report the full value of the donation’ and ‘contravening the requirement to keep proper accounting records’.
Lord Brownlow and his company also settled a number of invoices directly.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: ‘The Prime Minister must now explain why he lied to the British public saying he didn’t know who was behind No 11 flat refurb – all the while he was WhatsApping the donor asking for more money.
‘He’s not only broken the law but made a mockery of the standards we expect from our prime ministers.’
She has asked Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone to investigate.
A spokesman for the watchdog’s office declined to comment.
A CCHQ spokesman said: ‘We have been in constant contact with the Electoral Commission and have sought their advice as to how the transaction should be reported since it was made. We are considering whether to appeal.’
The revelations come after new polls carried out yesterday showed how the Tories have slumped in popularity in recent days after being rocked by the Christmas party revelations.
A YouGov poll carried out for The Times found that Labour now has a four-point lead, its biggest in 11 months.
A YouGov poll carried out for The Times found that Labour now has a four-point lead, its biggest in 11 months
More than two thirds of voters are now said to be questioning Mr Johnson’s integrity over his response to the Downing Street party scandal. The PM has consistently said that there was no party and no rules were broken.
Downing Street party was planned for three weeks
The Number 10 Christmas party had been planned for three weeks, it was reported last night.
According to The Times, invitations were sent to attendees on WhatsApp at the end of November, when the whole country was in full lockdown.
The Times reported that invitations were sent around at the end of November. They asked people to attend the Number 10 press office’s ‘secret Santa’ gathering with an exchange of gifts. The invitation said there would also be food and wine.
The messages are likely to form a part of an inquiry into the event by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. He is trying to find out if the event was an actual party, which would have broken lockdown rules.
If enough Tory backbenchers rebel when Plan B measures announced on Wednesday are voted on next week, the PM could face the terrible optics of needing Labour votes to push the laws through.
Tory MPs were reportedly speculating that more letters of no confidence in the PM were being handed to Sir Graham Brady, the leader of the immensely powerful 1922 Committee.
However, at this stage, there is said to be little chance that the PM will be forced out.
A minister told The Times that Mr Johnson would stay in his job by ‘default’ because no potential challenger would be able to unify critics.
They said the PM had committed ‘a series of unforced errors’ and the party was ‘lucky’ that Labour’s Sir Keir is ‘useless’.
The YouGov poll added that three quarters of people believe there was a Christmas Party where Covid-19 rules were broken and 68 per cent said they thought Mr Johnson was lying when he denied it.
A separate survation poll poll suggested that Labour’s poll lead may be even bigger, at six points.
Lord Geidt’s previous probe cleared Mr Johnson of wrongdoing, saying there was ‘no evidence that the Prime Minister had been informed by Lord Brownlow that he had personally settled the total costs’.
Mr Cummings said in another tweet yesterday that the PM had ‘obviously lied to Geidt’.
Downing Street insisted yesterday that the PM knew Lord Brownlow was in charge of a blind trust being used to fund the flat renovation, not that he was also the source of the donation.
‘The PM was not aware of the details of the underlying donor until prior to media reports (in February),’ Mr Johnson’s spokesman told reporters, saying the PM had not lied to Lord Geidt.
A separate investigation by the Electoral Commission uncovered evidence that on November 29, 2020, the PM ‘messaged Lord Brownlow (pictured) via WhatsApp asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also took to Twitter to take aim at the PM and branded him ‘unfit to lead’
The PM was also put under fresh pressure by his former right-hand man Dominic Cummings, who was in Downing Street when the expensive redecoration works were being planned for the living quarters above No 11
However the Commission report on Thursday noted that at the time in November ‘the proposed trust had not yet been set up’.
Boris’s flat saga: a timeline
January 2020: Plans are submitted for the refurbishment of the No11 flat, a month after Mr Johnson wins 2019 election.
February 2020: Officials decide to set up a blind trust to fund the six-figure renovation. The system is designed to ensure the beneficiary is not aware of the source of the money, to prevent corruption.
May 2020: Lord Brownlow is approached to set up and then chair the trust, and agrees.
June/July 2020: The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for the Downing Street estate, pays three invoices totalling £52,801.72 for work carried out, and then bills the Conservative Party.
August 2020: The Conservatives Party pays the bill.
October 2020: Lord Brownlow emails the party and asks how much the bill is, and says he will make a donation to cover it. He does so.
November 29, 2020: Boris Johnson contacts Lord Brownlow on WhatsApp ‘asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works’. Lord Brownlow agrees and explains that the Downing Street Trust has not yet been set up.
December 18, 2020: Lord Brownlow donates a further £33,484.80 to the firm refurbishing the flat.
February 2021: Lord Brownlow donates a further £13,295.30 to the firm refurbishing the flat, taking his total contribution to £112, 549.12
March 2021: The scale and cost of the renovations, and the way it was funded, is revealed by the Daily Mail. Boris Johnson repays the supplier personally and the firm then re-reimburses Lord Brownlow.
May 2021: Ministerial Standards watchdog Lord Geidt clears the PM of wrongdoing. He says officials assured him that Mr Johnson was not aware that Lord Brownlow paid for the work personally until it was revealed in the media. The PM also told him the same thing directly.
December 2021: The Electoral Commission fines the Conservatives Party £17,800 for failing to declare Lord Brownlow’s original donation. It reveals that he received the WhatsApp messages about money from the PM.
It found that the Conservative Party failed to ‘fully report’ a donation of £67,801.72 from Brownlow made in October 2020, of which £52,801 which was connected to the refurbishment of the 11 Downing Street flat where Boris Johnson lives.
The probe found that when the payment was flagged by a junior member of Conservative staff, they were told the cash was for ‘something else’ and ‘don’t worry’.
It also revealed that the PM personally begged Lord Brownlow for more cash via Whatsapp just weeks after his initial donation.
The result of its investigation is also likely to lead to a new probe by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone.
The commission’s investigation found that decisions relating to the handling and recording of the donation reflected ‘serious failings in the party’s compliance systems’.
A fine of £17,800 was levied for ‘failing to accurately report a donation and keep a proper accounting record’.
Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, said: ‘The party’s decisions and actions reflected serious failings in its compliance systems.
‘As a large and well-resourced political party that employs compliance and finance experts, and that has substantial sums of money going through its accounts, the Conservative Party should have sufficiently robust systems in place to meet its legal reporting requirements.’
The Daily Mail revealed details of the lavish redecoration of the apartment shared by the PM and his then fiancée in March.
The revamp at No11 by upmarket designer Lulu Lytle is said to have included gold wall coverings.
But the funding of the work did not appear in the list of political donations published by the Commission or in Mr Johnson’s Commons register of interests.
It prompted demands from the Labour Party for a full investigation into how the extravagant work was paid for and whether rules were broken.
The Electoral Commission said that Huntswood Associates transferred £67,801.72 to the Conservative Party on October 19, 2020.
Some £15,000 of that amount was for an event, but the commission said he ‘specifically identified the remaining £52,801.72 as a donation to cover an earlier payment of that value made by the party to the Cabinet Office’.
The Cabinet Office had paid three invoices over summer 2020, totalling the same amount, for the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat at 11 Downing Street, and these were made on the agreement that the sum would be repaid by the party.
At a Downing Street press conference, the PM declared that people should once again work from home where possible, as well as extending use of masks and introducing Covid passports for nightclubs
But the commission said that in donation records submitted on January 27, 2021, while the party reported the £15,000 from Huntswood Associates, it failed to report the £52,801.72.
What did Boris know and when?
Accounts of what Boris knew and when appear to differ between the Electoral Commission investigation and that carried out by his own ministerial standards adviser Lord Geidt earlier this year.
Lord Geidt’s report noted: ‘The Prime Minister … confirms that he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021. At that point, the Prime Minister immediately sought the necessary advice about his interests and, as a consequence, settled the full amount himself on 8 March 2021.’
But the Electoral Commission’s version of events says: ’29 November 2020: the Prime Minister messaged Lord Brownlow via WhatsApp asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence. Lord Brownlow agreed to do so, and also explained that the proposed trust had not yet been set up but that he knew where the funding was coming from.’
The commission also concluded that the reference in the party’s financial records to the payment of £52,801.72 made by the party for the refurbishment was not accurate as it was referred to as a ‘blind trust loan’.
However a trust to refurbish the flat had not been created.
The Tories are considering whether to appeal against the Electoral Commission fine over the donation linked to Boris Johnson’s flat refurbishment.
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said it remained to be seen if Lord Geidt will feel able to continue in his role, adding whoever does that role they will have to ‘exhibit perhaps a greater degree of curiosity, and perhaps a little less trust, than has been the case to date’.
The MP for Orkney and Shetland said in the Commons: ‘The report of the Electoral Commission today in relation to donations for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat states that the Prime Minister was WhatsApping Lord Brownlow asking for money in November 2020.
‘But it would appear that the Prime Minister also told Lord Geidt, the independent advisor, that he had only become aware of the funding source in February 2021.
‘Now it remains to be seen whether in these circumstances Lord Geidt will feel able to continue in the role of independent advisor.
‘But whoever does that job will have to do it with every assiduousness, shall we say, and exhibit perhaps a greater degree of curiosity, and perhaps a little less trust, than has been the case to date.’
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