The latest revelations about investigations into the funding of refurbishment work on Boris Johnson’s official Downing Street flat have prompted new calls for the prime minister's adviser on ministerial standards to get the power to launch their own probes.
Dave Penman, general secretary of senior civil servants’ union the FDA, and Tim Durrant, associate director at think tank the Institute for Government, both said the move was necessary after letters between Johnson and his independent adviser Lord Christopher Geidt were published yesterday.
The exchanges highlighted the extent to which key information was not provided to Geidt as he looked into concerns about funding arrangements for the refurbishment of Johnson’s No.11 flat, partly bankrolled by Conservative peer Lord David Brownlow.
Penman said the letters showed the episode had undermined the role of independent adviser on ministerial standards, and that the jury was out on whether Geidt should have quit. Durrant said there was “an obvious contrast” between Geidt’s repeated references to the status and importance of the office of the independent adviser and the reality of its support and powers.
Johnson’s letter to Geidt offered a “humble and sincere” apology for the fact that Geidt was not provided with details of a WhatsApp conversation about funding arrangements for the refurbishment which took place between the PM and Brownlow in November 2020. But the PM also criticised Cabinet Office officials for failing to keep Geidt in the loop on a separate investigation into the refurbishment being undertaken by the Electoral Commission.
The exchange of letters shows Geidt expressing “grave concern” that the Cabinet Office failed to take the “greatest possible care” to assemble all relevant information for his original inquiry.
In his apology letter, Johnson offered Geidt increased powers and better resourcing to do his job as independent standards adviser – although the offer stopped short of powers to launch investigations without No.10's go-ahead.
Geidt’s predecessor, Sir Alex Allan – who quit in November 2020 after Johnson disagreed with his conclusion that home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code – last year called for future independent advisers to get the power to launch their own probes. The proposal was backed by anti-sleaze watchdog the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but blocked by No.10.
Penman said Geidt had been wise to use Downing Street’s failure to disclose full information about discussions related to the flat refurbishment to extract assurances about his future support and powers. But he said the extent of those powers would be the deciding factor in whether he was right not to quit.
“Not only is [Geidt] getting some additional dedicated support which he says he needs and was previously promised, he’s also, in a timely way, before April, expecting a series of changes to how the ministerial code is operated, and his own remit to – as he calls it – “strengthen the independence of the role,” Penman told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The test of all of this will be what the outcome of all of that is. What he’s indicated is that the prime minister has agreed a series of further reforms, which as he puts in his letter, he expects to be able to report on by April.
“That’s why the jury is out. We need to see whether those further reforms genuinely strengthen the independent nature of Lord Geidt’s position. Then you can judge whether it was a reasonable position for him to resign given everything that’s happened, or actually he’s been able to use this to extract meaningful changes from the prime minister.”
Penman said that being able to initiate investigations was crucial for an independent adviser.
“You can’t really have full independence if you rely on the prime minister to tell you that you can investigate a minister, never mind himself,” he said.
The IfG’s Durrant said Geidt had been willing to accept Johnson’s word too easily, and that “given how often the prime minister has been investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards”, the adviser should have tested every assertion he was presented with.
However he said the independent adviser now had the opportunity to increase his powers and should make maximum use of it.
“Geidt’s anger at not being provided with all the relevant information has prompted the prime minister to promise ‘access to all information you consider necessary and prompt, full answers’ in future investigations, perhaps underpinned by a ‘legal instrument’,” Durrant wrote in a blog.
“Geidt should push for the greatest range of powers, including the ability to start his own investigations, to publish his findings, and for the ministerial code to be given a legislative underpinning.
“This would help ensure that future investigations are able to access all the facts.”
Labour says letters reveal ministerial code breaches
Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner said it was “simply impossible” to read the exchanges between Johnson and Geidt and conclude that the prime minister had not breached ministerial code requirements to “act with transparency and honesty”.
“Boris Johnson has little regard for the rules or the truth,” she said. “Once again, by attempting to hide the truth, Boris Johnson undermines his own office.
“The prime minister’s pathetic excuses will fool no one, and this is just the latest in a long line of sorry episodes.
“This matters because it matters who has influence on our government in a democracy. The British public can’t WhatsApp a wealthy donor to open their wallets on request, and the least they deserve is transparency about who’s bankrolling their prime minister.”
Yesterday’s letters included a transcript of the WhatsApp conversation between Johnson and Brownlow in November 2020 – a conversation that Johnson and his team failed to disclose to Geidt, but which Brownlow disclosed to the Electoral Commission.
In addition to Johnson asking Brownlow to assist with an early start on the flat refurbishment, the communications also referred to progress with a project for a new “great exhibition” that Brownlow was a keen supporter of.
Johnson wrote: “Ps am on the great exhibition plan Will revert.”
“Thanks for thinking about GE2,” Brownlow replied.
Brownlow subsequently met with then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden to discuss the plans for the great exhibition, inspired by 1851’s Great Exhibition. However, ministers later backed alternative plans.