Labour accuses Boris Johnson of lying over Downing Street refurbishment donation

Boris Johnson has been accused of lying over the lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street residence after the UK’s electoral watchdog fined the Conservative party £17,800 for failing to properly declare a donation behind the work.

The Labour party alleged that the prime minister had not told the truth after an Electoral Commission investigation published evidence that called into question whether Johnson misled the independent adviser on ministerial standards, Lord Christopher Geidt, who carried out a separate inquiry into the refurbishment earlier this year.

Johnson, who has now paid for the wider refurbishment work to the flat above 11 Downing Street himself, initially received a loan from the Tory party headquarters. The loan was not declared by Johnson, despite repeated pressure from Labour to confirm who originally paid for the work and when the prime minister paid it back.

The commission announced on Thursday it had fined the Tories £17,800 after concluding that the party had failed to declare a £52,801.72 donation made by Huntswood Associates Limited, which was intended to cover the refurbishment work. Lord David Brownlow, a Conservative donor and peer, is the company’s founder and sits on the board.

An official review carried out by Geidt earlier this year into the issue cleared Johnson of breaching the ministerial code. Geidt said Johnson was not the subject of any conflict of interest, even though some of the refurbishment work to the flat was funded initially by Brownlow.

Geidt accepted Johnson’s explanation that he thought the refurbishment work was being funded by a charitable trust and said the prime minister was distracted because the project — overseen by Carrie Symonds, then Johnson’s fiancée and now his wife — was being undertaken in “the middle of a pandemic”.

Johnson told Geidt he had not been aware Brownlow had settled an invoice for the refurbishment until February 2021.

However, the Electoral Commission said it had evidence that Johnson sent the peer a WhatsApp message in November 2020 “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence”.

Brownlow agreed and a month later confirmed to the prime minister that he had approved paying for further work.

Whitehall insiders said that Geidt was “deeply unhappy” that he may have been misled by the prime minister during his investigation and was considering his options, including potentially resigning as the independent adviser on ministerial standards.

One person briefed on his thinking said Geidt may want to reopen the inquiry into the refurbishment donation, but doing so may not be in his power. “Only the prime minister has the power to commission inquiries into ministerial standards,” the person said. “He’s not obviously happy, but his options are limited.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “The prime minister must now explain why he lied to the British public saying he didn’t know who was behind the No11 flat refurb — all the while he was Whatsapping the donor asking for more money.

“Boris Johnson has taken the British public for fools. He’s not only broken the law, but made a mockery of the standards we expect from our prime ministers.”

Labour has urged parliament’s commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, to investigate whether Johnson breached the MP’s code of conduct over the donations linked to the flat renovation.

Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, said in a statement: “As a large and well-resourced political party that employs compliance and finance experts, and that has substantial sums of money going through its accounts, the Conservative party should have sufficiently robust systems in place to meet its legal reporting requirements.”

Emails showed that Brownlow gave £58,000 to cover payments “already made” by the Conservative party towards the project and wanted the donation to be attributed to a “soon-to-be-formed Downing Street trust”.

Brownlow transferred £67,801.72 to the party in October 2020. Of this, £15,000 went towards covering an event, the remaining £52,801.72 went to the cabinet office for the refurbishment.

The Conservatives declared the £15,000 event donation, but not the £52,801.72. The watchdog said its investigation concluded that the full amount was a donation and should have been reported to the commission.

The watchdog added that on October 26 2020, in an email chain related to the payment of the £67,801.72, a junior member of staff in the party’s treasurer’s department asked about the nature of the remaining £52,801.72. The watchdog said the person was told by a senior party fundraising officer that the £15,000 related to “events” and the balance was for “something else” and “don’t worry”.

Additional invoices worth £59,747.40 were also paid directly to suppliers by Brownlow. These direct payments did not require a declaration, the watchdog concluded, as there was no evidence of any agreement that these expenses were incurred by, or would be paid by, the party.

A spokesperson for the Conservatives said it was a “technical breach” of the law. “We are considering whether to appeal this decision and will make a decision within 28 working days,” he said.

Downing Street said: “Lord Brownlow was the chair of a blind trust and acted in accordance with his experience of managing blind trusts in that way. The prime minister’s discussions with Lord Brownlow were done without him knowing the underlying donor of that donation.”

Brownlow did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Johnsons on Thursday announced “the birth of a healthy baby girl at a London hospital earlier today”. She is their second child; their son Wilfred was born in April 2020.

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