What was in the messages?
The full text of the messages is reproduced below.
29/11/2020, 12:59, Boris Johnson:
“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, Boris
“Ps am on the great exhibition plan Will revert”
29/11/2020, 15:44, Lord Brownlow
“Afternoon Prime Minister, I hope you’re both well
“Sorry for the delay I was out for a walk and didn’t have my ‘work’ phone with me.
“Of course, get Lulu to call me and we’ll get it sorted ASAP !
“Thanks for thinking about GE2
29/11/2020, 16:10, Lord Brownlow:
“I should have said, 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 - David”
Johnson messaged Lord Brownlow about the refurbishment of his flat, carried out by interior designer Lulu Lyttle, which the Tory donor had agreed to set up a trust to fund.
Although the trust was never established, Brownlow was later found to have given a significant amount of money to the Conservative party for the purposes of the refurbishment.
An investigation by the Electoral Commission into the funding of the refurbishment brought the messages to light.
The Electoral Commission’s investigation resulted in a £17,800 fine for the Conservative party, for failing to properly declare a £67,800 donation from Lord Brownlow’s firm.
Why are the messages important?
When reports of the expensive refurbishment came to light in 2021, questions were raised about the source of the funds, resulting in Boris Johnson asking Lord Geidt to investigate the matter.
Lord Geidt found the costs had been met initially by the Cabinet Office and subsequently were recharged to the Conservative Party, with Lord Brownlow settling one invoice out of his own pocket.
However, he said there was no evidence Mr Johnson had been aware of the payments until February 2021 when he paid the full amount himself.
He concluded that while the Prime Minister should have shown “more rigorous regard” for the way the revamp was funded, there had been no breach of the Ministerial Code.
At that stage, however, Lord Geidt, was not aware of the “missing exchange” with Lord Brownlow.
Johnson claimed the messages hadn’t been disclosed to Geidt at the time because he had changed his phone number in April due to security concerns, after it was revealed that it was published online.
The prime minister offered Geidt a “humble and sincere apology” for the situation that put him in, but maintained that he did not intentionally hide the messages.
Lord Geidt said the exchanges were “highly material” to his inquiry and it “shook my confidence” in the system that no-one in government had alerted him to their existence, even though the phone had subsequently been accessed “for another purpose”.
In a letter to the prime minister, he said: “Had I been aware of the missing exchange, I would have had further questions and drawn attention to it in my report.
“More crucially, I doubt whether I would have concluded, without qualification, that at the point when the prime minister became aware [of who was paying for the flat refurbishment], he took steps to make the relevant declaration and to seek advice.”
What about the exhibition?
In the messages, Johnson references ‘the great exhibition plan’ and suggests he will action this in some way.
Brownlow replies, saying “thanks for thinking about GE2”.
In January, a month or so after the messages were exchanged, Brownlow met with culture secretary Oliver Dowden, along with representatives from the Royal Albert Hall “to discuss plans for the Great Exhibition 2.0”.
Brownlow is a trustee of the Royal Albert Hall.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “All prime ministers and ministers have proposals put to them at various points and ministers also meet stakeholders regularly as part of their engagement on an array of issues. In line with normal practice this idea was referred to the relevant department, considered and ultimately not taken forward by the government.”
What has the reaction been?
Steve Reed, the shadow justice secretary, told Times Radio: “If Lord Brownlow had access to the prime minister because he was paying £100,000 to refurbish the prime minister’s flat, that is corruption pure and simple.”
Speaking to the Times, Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, described the messages as “pretty unbelievable” and claimed they amount to “corruption, plain and simple.
She said: “No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals.”
“The prime minister’s pathetic excuses will fool no one, and this is just the latest in a long line of sorry episodes.”
Labour has written to the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryne Stone, requesting that a formal investigation is launched into the flat refurbishment.
While Lord Geidt is Johnson’s adviser on the ministerial code, Stone enforces the separate MPs code of conduct, which the prime minister is still beholden to.
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