Downing St ‘liaising’ with standards adviser over Boris Johnson flat probe

Boris Johnson’s adviser on standards has demanded new information from Downing Street after discrepancies came to light in the prime minister’s account of the controversial refurbishment of his flat.

Downing Street confirmed on Friday that officials were “liaising” with Lord Christopher Geidt after an Electoral Commission report triggered questions over the accuracy of the prime minister’s account of how the redecoration of his flat at 11 Downing Street was paid for.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has written to Geidt claiming the commission’s report on Thursday was inconsistent with his own probe into the scandal. In May, Geidt cleared the prime minister of breaking the ministerial code over how the work was funded.

Rayner told the ministerial standards adviser, in the letter, that the discrepancy “seriously undermines the conclusions of the original inquiry”.

Geidt has not commented but is understood to be “deeply unhappy” that he may have been misled by the prime minister and is now considering his position.

Downing Street confirmed on Friday that officials were “liaising with Lord Geidt to answer any further questions he may have”.

Whether or not he sought to reopen an inquiry would be a “matter for him”, Number 10 said. But in order to do so he would need to request permission from the prime minister himself, it confirmed.

“Only the prime minister has the power to commission inquiries into ministerial standards,” said one person familiar with Geidt’s thinking. “He’s not obviously happy, but his options are limited.”

The former private secretary to the Queen took up the job a year ago after Sir Alex Allan quit in November 2020 following a disagreement with Johnson over whether home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code over bullying allegations.

Johnson had hoped to use this week to announce a string of “law and order measures” but instead his administration has been mired in allegations of sleaze and lies.

The opposition Labour party has pulled ahead in the polls after revelations that Johnson’s team held various social gatherings while strict Covid-19 restrictions were in place a year ago.

Amid a “sulphurous” atmosphere among Tory MPs, Nusrat Ghani, vice-chair of the backbench 1922 committee, said on Friday that there should be further consequences for attendees. “It was very obvious what the restrictions in London were this time last year,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Everyone has to respond equally to the restrictions and pay the penalty equally if those restrictions were broken.”

Lord Gavin Barwell, who was Theresa May’s chief of staff when she was prime minister, said there were discussions taking place among MPs about trying to remove Johnson.

“This hugely cuts through with voters,” he said. “Boris, more than anyone, his position depends on being seen as an electoral asset. If over time that goes, he really is in trouble.”

Geidt’s report in May said the prime minister had not been aware of how the refurbishment of the apartment in 11 Downing Street had been funded until late February 2021. But the Electoral Commission report revealed that Johnson sent a WhatsApp message in November 2020 to Lord David Brownlow, the sole donor behind the scheme, asking for more money.

Lord Christopher Geidt is understood to be ‘deeply unhappy’ that he may have been misled by the prime minister © Dominik Lipinski/PA

Rayner said the discrepancy suggested Johnson had been “not entirely honest and truthful” when he gave evidence, which would be a clear breach of the ministerial code. She asked Geidt to confirm urgently whether he was shown the WhatsApp messages between Johnson and Brownlow.

It was Geidt’s duty to uphold standards among ministers in the government, she added. “If Boris Johnson refuses a fresh investigation, that standard will be lowered significantly — setting the bar woefully low for our country’s public life.”

Downing Street explained the discrepancy by saying that Johnson communicated with Brownlow in the latter’s capacity as chair of a blind trust overseeing the financing of the refurbishment. “The prime minister’s discussions with Lord Brownlow were done without him knowing the underlying donor of that donation.”

Johnson, who has now paid for the wider refurbishment work to the flat himself, initially received a loan from Tory party headquarters.

The loan was not declared by the prime minister, despite repeated pressure from Labour to confirm who originally paid for the work and when it was paid 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. Brownlow, a Conservative donor and peer, is the company’s founder and sits on the board.

Geidt’s report had said Johnson was not the subject of any conflict of interest. It accepted Johnson’s explanation that he thought the refurbishment work was being funded by a charitable trust, suggesting the prime minister was distracted because the project was happening in “the middle of a pandemic”.

Labour has also urged parliament’s commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, to investigate.

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