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25 June 2020

The Robert Jenrick scandal could go either way for the government

Previous scandals have failed to make much of a dent – but has the environment changed in the wake of the Cummings debacle?

By Stephen Bush

How much trouble is the government going to get in over Robert Jenrick’s dealings with Richard Desmond? Newly released documents show that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary was “insistent” that approval for Desmond’s Westferry Printworks development was rushed through in time for Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, to avoid having to pay the new Community Infrastructure Levy to Tower Hamlets Council, a decision that Jenrick now accepts was unlawful. The levy for the £1bn, 1,500-home development would have come to around £40m.

But Boris Johnson has declared the matter “closed” – as Jenrick has provided a “full and factual” account of his activities and dealings with Desmond, who gave the Conservatives £12,000 and met with Jenrick at a fundraising dinner.

Jenrick is reasonably popular with colleagues, so the potential for the opposition parties to trigger internal disagreements within the Conservative Party by pushing a motion of censure, or some other embarrassing vote, is low.

Public opinion will decide the matter, but this is not an easy thing to forecast. Competing explanations can be offered with the benefit of hindsight, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted with confidence that Dominic Cummings’s lockdown trip would have caused significant damage to the government’s approval, or that the Arcuri affair would not. So we can’t say with any certainty whether this is one of those rumbling rows that does real damage, or one that will fail to register.

On the plus side for the government, the substance of the row is fairly detailed. People may zone out at the mention of development approval and the change to a levy regime.

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On the downside for Johnson and Jenrick, the numbers involved – that £12,000 donation and the possible £40m saving the decision caused – are tangible. Everyone can sort of imagine £12,000, a figure that would for many people be life-changing. And as for £40m, that’s a tangible figure, too: roughly the amount that Manchester City spends on their fourth-choice fullback.

So, this could go either way: it could either be a story that runs for a few days but is swiftly forgotten, or one that combines with the negative impressions left by the Cummings scandal to leave voters thinking that this is a government which doesn’t play by the rules it sets, that does one thing and says another.