U.K.’s Boris Johnson Says He Followed Rules Over Flat Refurbishment
(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was heavily criticized for his behavior during an investigation into the funding of his Downing Street apartment refurbishment, but ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.
The government failed to disclose all necessary evidence for the inquiry into the work on the flat, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Christopher Geidt, said in letters to the prime minister published Thursday.
“The greatest possible care should have been taken to assemble all relevant material and this standard has not been met,” Geidt wrote, adding that the missing disclosure had exposed a “signal deficiency” in standards. “Insufficient regard and respect” to the independent adviser’s role had been shown, he said, and that “potential and real failures of process occurred.”
In his own letter to Geidt, Johnson offered his “humble and sincere apology” and said that the role is “critical for the effective government of this country.”
Though cleared of breaching the ministerial code, it marks a fresh setback for Britain’s leader as he tries to get his premiership back on track. He endured a torrid end to 2021 marked by various ethics scandals, increasingly rebellious Conservative MPs and the opposition Labour Party gaining in the polls.
Johnson is also awaiting the verdict of a separate inquiry into alleged Christmas parties held at Downing Street in breach of pandemic rules, the outcome of which could further damage his administration.
Geidt had originally cleared the British premier in May, but then reviewed his findings following a separate investigation which showed he had not seen all of Johnson’s correspondence on the refurbishment when compiling his report.
At issue was whether Johnson took an undeclared loan from a political donor to cover the costs of refitting his Downing Street apartment. In Geidt’s initial probe, Johnson said he knew nothing of how the works were financed until just before press reports emerged in February 2021.
But that position was called into question in December, when the Electoral Commission fined Johnson’s Conservative Party over the apartment issue.
It cited a WhatsApp exchange between Johnson and Tory peer David Brownlow in November 2020, in which Johnson asked him to authorize further refurbishment works to his flat.
According to the probe, Brownlow agreed and said that, while a proposed blind trust to pay for the works hadn’t yet been established, “he knew where the funding was coming from.”
In the letters published Thursday, Geidt said he “recognized” Johnson’s view that the WhatsApp messages were still consistent with him not knowing that Brownlow had met the costs “personally.”
But Geidt also said the failure to alert him to the WhatsApp messages had been “unwise” and that the incident “shook my confidence.”
In a potentially further damaging revelation, the WhatsApp messages -- included in the letters published Thursday -- also appeared to show Johnson offering a favor to Brownlow. In the exchange, Johnson said: “Am on the great exhibition plan. Will revert.”
That appeared to refer to plans for a festival celebrating British life, which Brownlow also discussed with then Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden in January last year, according to official records.
Johnson’s spokesman Jamie Davies insisted plans for such an event were never “taken forward.” Instead, the government had since announced “Festival U.K.” taking place this year, he told reporters at a regular briefing.
Following his probe into the Downing Street flat, Geidt said he wants to strengthen the role of the independent adviser “in terms of considerably greater authority, independence and effect.”
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