Cabinet secretary Simon Case was in the dark for months about prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial proposals to set up a trust fund that would pay for upgrade work at Downing Street, it has emerged.
The PM’s plan to use donations to cover the cost of refurbishment at No.10 and No.11 first hit the headlines in late February – the same time the Cabinet Office has now confirmed that Case learned about the scheme.
It was reported at the time that Johnson and partner Carrie Symonds had lined up designer Lulu Lytle to deliver an upmarket makeover for the prime ministerial flat above No.11 that would cost many times more than the sanctioned £30,000 budget for work.
Last month Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings reignited interest in the flat refurbishment in a counterattack over Downing Street’s suggestion that he was responsible for a series of leaks. In a blog, Cummings described the PM’s original proposals to fund the refurbishment – thought to have originally involved donations from wealthy Conservative Party benefactors – as foolish and "possibly illegal".
Conservative Party donor Lord David Brownlow is understood to have been a driving force for the trust fund – modelled on a similar system for upgrades to the White House – and was in line to be its chair.
Despite Johnson’s assertion that he has now personally covered the cost of all work, the prime minister and cabinet colleagues have faced repeated questioning over how it was first funded.
Case is currently conducting a review of the refurbishment arrangements, which will form part a wider review of ministerial standards that will undertaken by the PM’s newly-appointed independent adviser Lord Christopher Geidt.
According to The Times, Case was not informed about the trust proposals by the prime minister for months and only learned of the plan at the time it became a news story – when the registration process with the Charity Commission was said to be under way.
The paper quoted a Cabinet Office spokesman confirming the timeline for Case’s involvement, but insisting that other officials were aware of the proposal. The spokesman said Case had talked with peers who Brownlow had approached in relation to the creation of the fund.
“The cabinet secretary only became aware of the trust in late February,” the spokesman said. “He met Lord Powell and Baroness Jay on March 11 to discuss the facts around the trust. They did not discuss matters relating to historic funding.”
The spokesman added: “Cabinet Office officials have been engaged and informed throughout and official advice has been followed.”
Last week, Case – who became cab sec in September last year – told members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that officials had been working on plans for the trust to fund the upkeep of Downing Street for “more than 12 months”. He told MPs that he and Cabinet Office perm sec Alex Chisholm had only become aware of the work earlier this year.
Case’s review will feed into Geidt’s investigation. which will advise the prime minister on whether he should declare any further interests under the Ministerial Code.
However, it will be up to the prime minister to decide whether to publish Geidt’s findings and – even more controversially – Johnson will be able to decide whether he agrees with any sanctions his independent adviser suggests.
A separate probe of the Downing Street refurbishment is being conducted by the Electoral Commission. It is examining whether the Conservative Party played any role in the initial funding of the work and whether any donations were properly managed and declared.