Ethics adviser asks for greater powers following Johnson apology

UK PM apologised for not disclosing messages with Tory donor about flat refurbishment

Boris Johnson’s independent ethics adviser has asked for more powers after the prime minister apologised for not disclosing an exchange of messages with a Conservative donor about paying for his private Downing Street flat to be refurbished.

Christopher Geidt, who cleared the prime minister of misconduct in an investigation into the refurbishment last year, said that Mr Johnson's team had shown "insufficient respect" for his role when they failed to disclose the missing exchange of messages even after they were uncovered during a separate investigation by the Electoral Commission.

Mr Johnson said he had forgotten about the messages because he had changed his phone number following security advice. In a letter to the prime minister, Lord Geidt said he wants his role as independent adviser on ministers’ interests to be given “considerably greater authority, independence and effect”.

Mr Johnson invited Lord Geidt to investigate the flat refurbishment last year following controversy over its cost and how it was paid for. Incoming prime ministers receive a grant of £30,000 (€36,000) to refurbish the flat but work commissioned by the prime minister and his wife Carrie from the interior designer Lulu Lyttle cost tens of thousands of pounds more.


WhatsApp exchange

The extra cost was initially paid by a Conservative party donor but after that became public, the money was returned and Mr Johnson paid the bill himself. He told Lord Geidt he had no knowledge of how it was being funded until reports emerged in the media but he did not disclose a WhatsApp exchange with Tory donor David Brownlow from November 2020.

"Hi David, I am afraid parts of our flat are still a bit of a tip and am keen to allow Lulu Lytle to get on with it. Can I possibly ask her to get in touch with you for approvals? Many thanks and all best," Mr Johnson wrote, adding "PS: Am on the great exhibition plan. Will revert."

Lord Brownlow replied saying “Of course, get Lulu to call me and we’ll get it sorted ASAP!” and thanking Mr Johnson for “thinking about GE2”. A few minutes later, he sent another message to the prime minister saying “as the Trust isn’t set up yet (will be in January) approval is a doddle as it’s only me and I know where the £ will come from, so as soon as Lulu calls we can crack on”.

Downing Street said on Thursday that "the great exhibition" and "GE2" referred to a plan for a festival celebrating Brexit which was not pursued and was overtaken by Unboxed, a celebration of British creativity taking place this year. Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Mr Johnson of offering "pathetic excuses" to Lord Geidt about the missing exchange of messages.

"Boris Johnson has little regard for the rules or the truth. The ministerial code requires ministers to act with transparency and honesty. It is simply impossible to read these exchanges and conclude that the prime minister has not breached these aspects of the code," she said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times