Boris Johnson faces more serious questions over his Downing Street flat refurbishment after a furious letter from his ethics chief revealed explosive new text messages.
The ‘missing’ messages reveal Mr Johnson had declared the luxury flat above Number 11 “a bit of a tip” – and asked Lord Brownlow to release more donor cash for a lavish, £112,000 designer refurbishment.
And they reveal the PM promised the Lord Brownlow he would consider at his plan for a second “Great Exhibition”.
Labour said the exchange appeared to be “corruption, plain and simple.”
While Lord Brownlow gave the messages to an Electoral Commission probe into the funding of the makeover, they were withheld from Lord Geidt – his advisor on the ministerial code.
In a scorching letter, Lord Geidt said the failure to provide him with the texts was “plainly unsatisfactory”, demonstrated “insufficient respect” and presented a “threat to public confidence” in his job.
And while he doesn’t think the texts are a smoking gun proving Mr Johnson broke the rules over the cash, Lord Geidt said his report into the scandal would have been different if he’d known about them.
Meanwhile, Downing Street was forced to deny Mr Johnson had agreed to look into Lord Brownlow’s plan for a “Great Exhibition 2.0” because of the cash.
The PM’s deputy spokesman insisted the idea was “not taken forward.”
But official records show then Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden met with Lord Brownlow to discuss the project in January last year (2021), just months after the texts.
And the PM’s spokesman was unable to explain the difference between Lord Brownlow’s “Great Exhibition” idea, and the ‘Festival of the UK’ planned for later this year.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “It appears that Lord Brownlow had access to the Prime Minister and Culture Secretary because he was paying for his luxury flat renovations.
“It is pretty unbelievable that Boris Johnson didn’t know who was paying for his luxury flat renovations.
“If so, that is corruption plain and simple. No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals. Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer.”
In May, Lord Geidt ruled that Mr Johnson had “unwisely” allowed the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat at No 11 to go ahead without “more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”.
But he concluded there had been no conflict of interest or breach of the Ministerial Code.
He wrote that the PM had assured him that “at no point the eight months until late February 2021, as media reports were emerging, was the prime minister made aware of either the fact or the method of the costs of refurbishing the apartment having been paid.”
But after the messages were revealed, he wrote to Mr Johnson: “Had I been aware of the Missing Exchange, I would have had further questions and drawn attention to it in my report.
“More crucially, I doubt whether I would have concluded, without qualification, what is set out in paragraph 33 of my report, that ‘at the point when the Prime Minister became aware, he took steps to make the relevant declaration and to seek advice’.”
Lord Geidt told the Prime Minister of his “grave concern” that the missing messages were not provided to him when he was investigating how the flat redecoration was funded, or when Mr Johnson’s old phone – where the messages were stored – was accessed in June last year “for another purpose”.
And he said the incident had “shook his confidence”.
No10 refused to explain why the PM’s old phone could not be searched for Lord Geidt’s inquiry, when it was subsequently accessed over a “security” matter.
Mr Johnson said he offered a “humble and sincere apology” but that he did not recall the exchange with Tory donor and peer Lord Brownlow.
The letters reveal the Cabinet Office blocked Lord Brownlow from sharing the texts with Lord Geidt at the same time as providing them to the Electoral Commission’s inquiry.
In his reply to Lord Geidt in December, the PM claimed the Cabinet Office had decided it was “not appropriate” to share them with him, because they were subject to an ongoing investigation.
But Mr Johnson accepted it was “unacceptable” that the Cabinet Office did not at least make Lord Geidt aware that they existed.
So what is the row all about and what are the biggest red flags in the report?
Here’s what you need to know.
First, a potted history
What’s the row all about?
The PM’s wife Carrie oversaw a redecoration in the four-bed living space above 11 Downing Street – traditionally used by PMs as it is bigger and more luxurious than the two-bed flat above No10.
The makeover by designer Lulu Lytle is said to have included £840-a-roll wallpaper, a £9,800 Baby Bear sofa and a £3,000 Lily Drum table.
It cost more than £112,000.
Who paid the bill?
It’s complicated. Boris Johnson originally assumed a charitable trust, led by Tory donor Lord Brownlow, would fund the work.
But no such trust existed, and the idea then fell through due to legal concerns. So Lord Brownlow coughed up £112,549,42 himself.
After a media storm, the PM later “settled the full amount himself” – effectively paying back Lord Brownlow and the Conservative Party , who’d handled some of the money.
A further £28,647 of a £30k annual allowance from taxpayers was spent on Downing Street refurbishment, but it’s unclear whether it was for the flat.
What is the newly-revealed exchange?
The PM wrote in November 2020: “I am afraid parts of our flat are still a bit of a tip and am keen to allow Lulu Lytle to get on with it. Can I possibly ask her to get in touch with you for approvals?”
Lord Brownlow replied, saying: “As the Trust isn’t set up yet (will be in January) approval is a doddle as it’s only me and I know where the £ will come from.”
The PM failed to inform his own ethics advisor about the message. Instead he claimed he only knew the source of the money three months later.
Yet the PM escaped sanction after claiming the message was on his old phone, which he had to ditch after it emerged his number had been online for more than a decade.
Why were the Tories fined?
The Conservative Party was fined £17,800 by the Electoral Commission in December for breaching electoral law over the way the money was recorded.
A £67k loan from Lord Brownlow included £52,801.72 to pay for revamping the flat. But Tory chiefs left that crucial £52,801.72 out of public records.
Questions were asked by a junior staffer in the Tory treasurer’s office. But a senior fundraising officer told them the £52k was for “something else…don’t worry.”
The unanswered questions for Boris Johnson
Why wasn’t Lord Geidt given access to the PM’s old phone?
During his inquiry, Boris Johnson’s office told Lord Geidt his old phone was not accessible – he’d been forced to change it after his number was revealed online.
But Lord Geidt’s letter reveals the phone was accessed in June 2021 – after his report had been published – for “another purpose”.
Number 10 refused to explain why, citing “security” reasons.
Where is the PM’s old phone now?
Number 10 won’t say – again saying it was a “security” matter.
Why did the Cabinet Office keep Lord Geidt in the dark?
Lord Brownlow offered to share the texts with Lord Geidt at the same time as he gave them to the Electoral Commission.
The Cabinet Office blocked this, Number 10 claims, because it might interfere with the watchdog’s statutory investigation.
But the PM admitted in his letter that it was “unacceptable” for them to not even tell Lord Geidt’s team that they existed.
Was Boris Johnson’s interest in a ‘Great Exhibition’ linked to the refurbishment cash? And what’s the difference between a ‘Great Exhibition’ and ‘Festival UK’?
In the same text message Boris Johnson used to ask Lord Brownlow to release more cash, he added: “Ps am on the great exhibition plan Will revert.”
In his reply, Lord Brownlow said: “Thanks for thinking about GE2.”
A few months later, in January 2021, records show then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden met with representatives of the Royal Albert Hall and Lord Brownlow to discuss a ‘Great Exhibition 2.0’
Number 10 denied any link between Lord Brownlow donating cash for Boris Johnson’s flat refurb, and securing both the PM’s personal attention and a meeting with the Culture Secretary to discuss the project.
The spokesman said: “This isn’t something that we’ve taken forward. DCMS have taken forward Festival UK this year.”
He added: “Lord Brownlow acted in a manner consistent with his experience in blind trusts”.
But he was unable to explain the difference between the Great Exhibition 2.0 project and the Festival UK project – now known as UNBOXED – set to take place later this year.