Boris Johnson has been accused of lying to an official investigation over who paid for luxury refurbishments to his Downing Street flat.
It would be a big story at the best of times. Coming amid an ongoing outcry over allegations that No 10 officials broke lockdown rules to hold a Christmas party last year, the revelations are very dangerous for Johnson.
The reason why this time may be so bad for the Prime Minister is that the evidence against him doesn’t come from anonymous sources quoted in the press saying colourful things about aides getting drunk and playing Secret Santa. The contradiction of Johnson’s version of events is laid bare in black and white in two separate official investigations, published seven months apart.
The issue is how much Johnson knew about arrangements in which David Brownlow, a Tory donor, covered the cost of work being done to refurbish the PM’s residence above 11 Downing Street.
Christopher Geidt, the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests, conducted a review into the funding of works to refit the No 11 apartment. In his report published in May, Geidt said Johnson had acted “unwisely” by not being more “rigorous” in establishing who paid for the work on the flat.
But he noted that he had spoken to Johnson “who confirms that he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021”. Geidt cleared Johnson of breaking the rules on ministerial conduct.
Now, the Electoral Commission has completed its own investigation and found evidence that Johnson in fact knew far earlier – because he personally asked Brownlow to “authorise” the works. On Thursday (9 December), the commission fined the Conservative Party £17,800 for failing to record and report Brownlow’s donations properly, and set out in some detail the complicated financial arrangements behind the refurbishment of the flat.
On 29 November 2020, “the Prime Minister messaged Lord Brownlow via WhatsApp asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence,” the Electoral Commission wrote in its report published on Thursday. “Lord Brownlow agreed.” A week or so later, Brownlow confirmed to Johnson that he had “approved further works”, the commission said.
Both versions of events can’t be true and Johnson will now be asked to explain the discrepancy.
Dominic Cummings, the PM’s disillusioned former aide, intervened on Twitter to twist the knife. He said he told Johnson “in extremely blunt & unrepeatable terms” in January and in the summer of 2020 that “his desire for secret donations to fund wallpaper etc was illegal & unethical. He pursued it throughout the year trying to keep me/others in dark & lied to Geidt/CCHQ to cover it up.”
What will Johnson say? Arguing that either the Electoral Commission or Geidt, the standards adviser, have made mistakes over something so fundamental to their inquiries would hardly be credible.
For one thing, the commission seems to have evidence of WhatsApp exchanges between Johnson and Brownlow, making clear that the PM knew about the arrangement. If Geidt, who was formerly the Queen’s most senior official, had made an error in his report in May, Johnson could have corrected it far sooner.
It seems that the only explanation lies with Johnson himself. He will have to admit he either got it wrong when he told Geidt he didn’t know about the donations, or failed to correct Geidt’s mistaken impression of events, or he will have to concede that Cummings is right and he just made it up. The last of these is the least likely, though Johnson’s detractors will say it is the most credible explanation.
There may also be calls for Geidt to reopen his investigation into whether Johnson broke ministerial conduct rules.
In the end, the public will probably forget the details, but this is another episode that will reinforce the impression that Johnson’s government is mired in sleaze. And it is not over yet.