Boris Johnson is facing renewed criticism over the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment after his own ethics adviser condemned the “extraordinary” failure to hand over key messages during his investigation.
The prime minister offered a “humble and sincere apology” to Lord Geidt – blaming a new mobile phone number for his failure to recall his exchange with Tory donor who offered to pay for the work.
So what exactly do we know about the messages, the funding arrangements behind the refurb, and the various attempts to get to the bottom of the row? The Independent took a closer look at the timeline of the scandal’s incredible twists and turns.
Mr Johnson and his partner Carrie wanted to have renovation work carried out on their private flat at 11 Downing Street. The PM contacted to Tory donor Lord Brownlow ask about paying for planned work by interior designer Lulu Lytle.
In these messages – released for the first time this week – Mr Johnson told Lord Brownlow: “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 – who had been planning to set up a trust to fund the refurb, but ended up initially providing the costs – told Mr Johnson: “Of course, get Lulu to call me and we’ll get it sorted ASAP!”
The Tory donor added: “I should have said, 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, so as soon as Lulu calls we can crack on.”
Media reports emerge about the funding of Mr Johnson’s lavish new wallpaper and other furnishings – featuring claims that some additional payments were made through the Conservative Party and had not been properly declared
It became clear that Mr Johnson’s flat refurb had exceeded the annual public grant of up to £30,000 any prime minister can spend on renovations, and that there had been discussions about a Downing Street trust being set up to pay for the work. But No 10 initially insisted that Johnson had met all the costs of the work personally.
A leaked email from Tory donor Brownlow to the party’s co-chair from October 2020 showed he was making donations “to cover the payments the party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed Downing Street trust”.
Mr Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings claimed the PM had planned to have Tory donors “secretly pay” for the work – claiming he had warned against the “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal” funding plan.
But the prime minister insisted he had “covered the costs” of the renovations himself, after he was challenged by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs. The same month, the Electoral Commission announced an investigation into the matter.
Mr Johnson’s adviser on ministers’ interests Lord Geidt announced that he had cleared the prime minister of breaching the ministerial code after his own investigation.
In a harsh warning, Lord Geidt ruled that the PM had “unwisely” allowed the refurbishment of his flat to go ahead without “more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”.
The adviser also said Mr Johnson had assured him he had no knowledge of the payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.
The Electoral Commission ruled that the Conservative Party broke electoral laws over the controversial funding of Mr Johnson’s flat refurbishment – announcing that reporting and recording laws were not followed and handing the party a £17,800 fine.
The electoral watchdog also said that in November 2020, Mr Johnson had sent a WhatsApp message to Lord Brownlow “asking him to authorise further … refurbishment works on the residence” – suggesting Lord Geidt had been misled.
The investigation found a total of £112,549 had been paid by Huntswood Associates – whose director is Tory donor Lord Brownlow – to cover the refurbishment work by Soane Britain, which is owned by interior designer Lulu Lytle.
The Conservatives were negligent in failing to fully report a donation of just over £67,801 from Huntswood Associates Limited, while a separate sum from Lord Brownlow’s company connected to the costs of the was “not reported as required”.
The Tory Party had provided a “bridging loan” of £52,802 to the Cabinet Office for the refurbishment, before it was reimbursed by Lord Brownlow.
The probe also found that in March 2020, Mr Johnson paid £112,549 to the supplier himself, so the supplier was able to return money received from Lord Brownlow and the Cabinet Office.
Ethics adviser Lord Geidt attacked the failure to provide his investigation “with all the material” behind the funding, as an exchange of letters with Mr Johnson was released.
Lord Geidt describes the omission of the prime minister’s communication with Lord Brownlow back in November 2020 as “extraordinary”. The prime minister offered a “humble and sincere apology” for a mix-up he blamed on replacing his phone number due to “security issues”.
Labour said the PM’s “pathetic excuses will fool no one”. Deputy leader Angela Rayner said it was “simply impossible to read these exchanges” and conclude Mr Johnson had not broken the ministerial code.
Mr Johnson now faces the threat of a further inquiry by the parliamentary commissioner for standards. Questions remain about how Mr Johnson ultimately paid back the £112,549 needed for the renovations.
The PM also faces new questions about Lord Brownlow’s idea for a national exhibition. He told the Tory donor he was “on the great exhibition plan”, the latest release of messages revealed.
Two months later, Lord Brownlow joined a meeting with the culture secretary “to discuss plans for Great Exhibition 2.0” – a showcase of British innovation later renamed Festival UK.