Boris Johnson acted unwisely over flat refurbishment, report finds

Boris Johnson “unwisely” embarked on a refurbishment of his official Downing Street flat without knowing how it would be paid for, an official report has concluded, saying a Tory peer and party donor initially stepped in to settle bills.

This involved “a significant failing”, the new independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Christopher Geidt, has said. However, Geidt said in a report annexed to the regular list of ministers’ interests, given factors such as the ongoing Covid pandemic, and David Brownlow’s status as an existing party supporter, he was happy that “no conflict (or reasonably perceived conflict) arises as a result of these interests”.

The interests had now been properly declared by Johnson, Geidt added. But in criticism of Johnson, he said: “The prime minister – unwisely, in my view – allowed the refurbishment of the apartment at No 11 Downing Street to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded.”

Lord Brownlow settled the invoice – the report does not say for how much – on 19 October 2020 and told Cabinet Office officials the next day.

The report goes on: “Cabinet Office officials appear not to have acted on this information to the extent of informing the prime minister, let alone offering him advice on his private interests.”

The apparent confusion happened because of attempts to pay for the work via a trust, which then proved complex to set up.

The list of interests is usually updated every six months, but the previous version was published in July last year. Such a significant delay in publishing what is usually a routine register of things such as shares owned and charitable posts created particular interest because of the many unanswered questions about how Johnson has financed his lifestyle inside No 10.

There was particular scrutiny of payments for the refurbishment of his personal flat above 11 Downing Street. Johnson’s spokesperson repeatedly said he “has met the cost” of any work, while refusing to say if someone else initially paid for it.

Separately, the Electoral Commission said last month it had launched a formal investigation into how the work was paid for, saying there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect multiple offences may have been committed.

Other unanswered questions include whether the prime minister received any help, even on an interim basis, with childcare for his son Wilfred, and the reported dispatch of organic meals and other food to No 10 by a company owned by another leading Conservative donor.

As a backbench MP, Johnson was free to earn significant sums outside parliament, including £22,000 a month for a weekly Telegraph column, and there have been widespread reports he finds the prime ministerial salary of just over £150,000 inadequate.

Loans must be declared as well as outright donations, and if these are not properly and promptly declared this is a breach of ministerial rules. In 1998, the then trade secretary, Peter Mandelson, resigned after it emerged he had borrowed £373,000 from his cabinet colleague Geoffrey Robinson to buy a home and had not declared it.

Part of the delay has been because the list is formally overseen by the government’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, and the previous holder of the post, Alex Allen, resigned in November last year after Johnson refused to take action against Priti Patel when an investigation found evidence the home secretary had bullied civil servants.

Geidt, who served as the Queen’s private secretary for 10 years and as an army intelligence officer before that, was installed at the start of this month. The delay fuelled speculation that Johnson was not keen to reveal any donations he had received.

Appearing before a parliamentary committee two weeks after his appointment, Lord Geidt said it was “unfortunate” the register was five months late and promised to speed up this process.

Geidt said the terms of reference for his role meant it would be clear he was properly holding Johnson and other ministers to account, and said he would consider resigning “as a last resort” if he felt he was unable to properly do his job.

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