Downing Street flat probe: ‘Grave concern’ over Cabinet Office failings

Johnson pledges independent standards adviser will get better support and more powers after debacle over undisclosed messages
Prime minister Boris Johnson. Photo: GOV.UK

By Jim Dunton

07 Jan 2022

Boris Johnson's independent adviser on ministerial standards has voiced “grave concern” over the Cabinet Office’s approach to his investigation into funding arrangements for the refurbishment of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat, newly-published letters reveal.

Meanwhile,  Johnson has blamed the Cabinet Office for treating his independent adviser on ministerial standards in an “unacceptable” way after new information on the controversial project emerged.

The revelations come in just-published exchanges between Johnson and standards adviser Lord Christopher Geidt. However, Geidt has not changed his ultimate assessment of the prime minister’s conduct in the affair.

Geidt cleared Johnson of wrongdoing over the funding arrangements for his No.11 Downing Street home in May last year, although the adviser said the PM had acted “unwisely” by not paying close enough attention to how work would be funded.

A separate probe on the refurb conducted by the Electoral Commission later revealed evidence of communications between Johnson and Conservative Party peer Lord David Brownlow about funding arrangements for the refurb that had not been made available to Geidt’s inquiry.

In December, it fined the Conservative Party £17,800 after finding that a payment of £52,801 in relation to the refurbishment had been made to the Cabinet Office to cover the cost of the work, but had not been declared properly.

The probe also revealed details of a November 2020 WhatsApp conversation between Johnson and Brownlow. Johnson had assured Lord Geidt he knew nothing about payments made towards the refurbishment by Brownlow until February 2021.

But the November WhatsApp exchange revealed the PM asking Brownlow – who was working to set up a trust to cover the cost of the project – whether an early start could be made by designer Lulu Lytle.

Brownlow, a former Conservative Party vice-chairman, responded: “Of course, get Lulu to call me and we’ll get it sorted ASAP!”.

The newly-published exchanges between Geidt and Johnson reveal that the standards adviser was fuming when details of the WhatsApp conversation emerged, although he subsequently concluded that the “missing exchange” did not alter his earlier judgment on Johnson’s conduct.

“You will understand that this new information and its omission from the original exercise has caused me to test my confidence in my earlier conclusions,” Geidt wrote to Johnson on 17 December.

“It is plainly unsatisfactory that my earlier advice was unable to rely on the fullest possible disclosure of relevant information.

“Clearly, a very serious degree of risk attends a prime minister's commission of an investigation by the independent adviser into activity touching directly on the prime minister’s interests, when that investigation is subsequently shown to have proceeded without reference to material requiring disclosure.”

Geidt said it was a “grave concern” that the Cabinet Office had failed to take the “greatest possible care” to assemble all relevant information for his original inquiry. He appeared particularly annoyed that some members of Johnson’s team had been aware the Electoral Commission had details of the WhatsApp exchange while he had not been notified of its existence.

Geidt added that he had learned of the publication of the Electoral Commission report on the day it was published, before anyone at the Cabinet Office – where his secretariat is based – had told him about it.

A 21 December letter from Johnson explained that he had lost access to the mobile device used for the WhatsApp exchange and had not recalled the discussion with Brownlow. Brownlow had shared his communications with the Electoral Commission.

Johnson said that although Brownlow had offered to share the material he was submitting to the commission with the Cabinet Office, officials had declined the offer because the department was an interested party in the statutory investigation.

The prime minister said the Cabinet Office should have done more to keep Geidt informed of events.

“It is unacceptable that the Cabinet Office did not at the very least inform you of the position they had taken,” he said.

“The government had limited notice of when the report would be published and did not have access to an advance copy.”

Geidt said it was “extraordinary” that Brownlow’s offer to share his submission had been declined. He also observed that the Cabinet Office had access to the prime minister’s mobile device during his inquiry period.

Boosted powers

Johnson’s 21 December letter reaffirmed his support for Geidt – who was appointed after predecessor Sir Alex Allan quit in 2020 – and offered him boosted powers and resources to do his job.

“I very much value your work as my independent adviser,” the prime minister wrote. “The role is critical for the effective government of this country. 

“I want to propose two specific steps that should be put in place immediately to draw a line under these events and to strengthen your office.

“First I have directed the Cabinet Office to provide you with more dedicated support from officials as part of your secretariat.

“Second, you and your office should be afforded the highest standards of support and attention when pursuing your work.

“This will include access to all information you consider necessary and prompt, full answers. Officials will provide a specific proposal in January for you to consider.”

Geidt thanked the prime minister for his apology and for his “determination to prevent such a situation from happening again”.

However he noted in a 23 December letter that the episode had shaken his confidence “because potential and real failures of process occurred in more than one part of the apparatus of government”.

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