Documents cast doubt on Robert Jenrick’s defence

Robert Jenrick’s claim that he did not breach ministerial rules appeared to unravel last night as it emerged that he had instructed planning officials to fast-track a development without declaring a conflict of interest.

Oliver Wright Policy Editor | Billy Kenber (yesterday) 
Documents show that the housing secretary told his department to prioritise advice so he could make a decision on the £1 billion housing scheme two days after he had met the Tory donor behind the plan at a Conservative fundraising dinner.

However, he failed to declare the potential conflict of interest until nearly a month later in apparent breach of the ministerial code that requires significant information to be disclosed “as soon as possible” .

Mr Jenrick’s aides have previously claimed that the delay was due to the general election. The document reveals, however, that Mr Jenrick was prepared to intervene in the case during the election period while not disclosing his interest.

The intervention was critical in helping Richard Desmond, the former newspaper owner, to save paying a £40 million fee that he might otherwise have incurred if planning permission had been delayed.

Yesterday Downing Street continued to defend Mr Jenrick despite unease on the back benches. The prime minister’s official spokesman said that Boris Johnson had “full confidence” in him.

Nadhim Zahawi, the business minister, said the documents released on Wednesday proved there was no overt influence exerted by Mr Desmond. Mr Zahawi indicated that anybody could deploy similar tactics to the wealthy businessman. “If people go to a fundraiser in their area for the Conservative Party, they will be sitting next to MPs and people in their local authorities and can interact with different parts of the authority,” he said. He insisted that “the access did not buy this billionaire a decision”.

Yet the emails show that until Mr Jenrick’s intervention, the department had hardly known of the case, with one official tasked with looking into the application stating that “for the life of me I can’t find it on any of our forward look [planning] stuff”.

They disclose that Mr Jenrick was keen for his department to speed up its formal process for reviewing the development plans so it was ready for him to make a decision when the government won the election. It also hints at Mr Desmond’s desire for a decision before January 15 when the local council was due to vote on changes to a community charge that would result in the £40 million fee being levied.

Written by an unnamed official in Mr Jenrick’s office it expresses surprise that a case has been raised with officials during the election purdah period when ministers usually only conduct essential business in the departments. “Morning ( you thought you wouldn’t hear from me over purdah!!!)!” it says. “[The minister] has asked that advice be prepared for the first few days of the new Gov so a decision can be communicated before Xmas. Does this all sound ok?”

Last night Labour demanded Mr Jenrick return to the Commons to explain the discrepancy, warning that “this matter is far from closed”.

Polling for the Times Red Box by Redfield and Wilton Strategies revealed that nearly half of voters believe Mr Jenrick should quit over the saga. Some 46 per cent of all voters believe his position has become untenable, as do 37 per cent of Tory voters.

Questions for the minister

What involvement did No 10 have in Robert Jenrick’s decision to give the go-ahead to the project?
One of Boris Johnson’s last acts as mayor was to give the go-ahead to an earlier development by Richard Desmond. The government has refused to release any documents that may have passed through No 10 that led to Mr Jenrick’s decision.

Who organised the seating plan for the Tory fundraising dinner?
It seems an odd coincidence that the housing secretary happened to be seated next to a Tory donor who was looking for development approval a month later. Yet Tory HQ has refused to give an explanation.

Why did he not declare meeting Mr Desmond immediately?
Mr Jenrick claimed that he raised the issue as soon as he was reconfirmed as housing secretary. During the election campaign, he asked his private office to speed up the application process.

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