Downing Street refurb: the money trail, inquiries and questions still to answer
Boris Johnson has said that he “covered the costs” of renovation work carried out on the flat above No 11 Downing Street, which the prime minister and his family have used as their private residence, but he continues to be dogged by questions about its funding.
How it started …
Johnson and his wife, Carrie, were said to have wanted to transform the flat in the weeks after his 2019 general election win from his predecessor, Theresa May’s, “John Lewis furniture nightmare” into a “high society haven”.
Although an annual £30,000 public grant is available for Downing Street works, Johnson had wanted to spend more, with the result that the Tory peer David Brownlow was asked to chair a trust using anonymous donations.
With refurbishment under way by June 2019, the Cabinet Office agreed to pay extra costs from three invoices totalling £52,801, then be reimbursed by the Conservatives from a trust.
The money trail …
The party did reimburse the government on 6 August, but in September the Cabinet Office was invoiced by the supplier for a further £12,967.
This was forwarded first to Brownlow and then to Conservative central headquarters (CCHQ), before the peer confirmed in an email that he would be making a £15,000 donation and “£52,801.72 to cover payments the party has made on behalf of the soon to be formed ‘Downing Street Trust’ of which I am chairman”.
He also paid £12,967 to the supplier on the same day, 19 October, for the invoice received in September.
Further payments made by him directly to the supplier included £33,484 on 18 December and £13,295 on 12 February 2021, bringing the total sum Brownlow and his company paid to the Conservatives and the supplier to £112,549.
The following month, Johnson paid £112,549 to the supplier himself, so the supplier returned the funds received from Brownlow and the Cabinet Office.
The inquiries …
Launching a formal investigation in April of this year into how the work was paid for, the Electoral Commission said that there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.
On the same day, the prime minister announced the appointment of Christopher Geidt as his new independent adviser on ministerial interests. Lord Geidt, a crossbench peer, built on work initially carried out by Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, and investigated whether Johnson should have made any disclosures required by the ministerial code.
What Geidt concluded
Geidt cleared Johnson of breaching the ministerial code in May 2021, though he concluded that the prime minister had “unwisely … allowed the refurbishment … to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”.
He also said he had checked a claim that Johnson knew nothing of the payments made for the flat by others, reporting that the prime minister had told him “he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021”.
How the Electoral Commission differed …
Its report this week makes clear that on 23 June 2020 Johnson offered Brownlow the role of chair of the Downing Street Trust, and on 29 November messaged him on WhatsApp asking him to authorise further refurbishment works.
The Commission fined the Tories £17,800 after ruling that the party had not followed the law over donations by Brownlow to help cover the renovations.
The Conservatives had failed to “accurately report a donation and keep a proper accounting record” of the money handed over by the Tory peer, the watchdog said.
A key area now centres on evidence, documented by the Electoral Commission, showing Johnson had sent Brownlow a WhatsApp message in November 2020 “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence”, to which he agreed.
But while Downing Street says Johnson did not lie to Geidt, telling him he had no knowledge of the payments until immediately before media reports in February, Labour has called for a fresh investigation from peers and for the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, to examine the matter.
Downing Street’s defence amounted to Johnson not knowing that Brownlow was providing the money to the “blind trust” he was organising.
Another question centres on how Johnson ultimately also paid £112,549 to the supplier of the renovations himself, so the supplier returned the funds it had got from Brownlow and the Cabinet Office.
“Any payments between the prime minister and the supplier are outside the scope of our investigation,” the Electoral Commission has said.