The government has admitted it received Conservative Party funds to help pay for the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat.
Seth Thévoz www.opendemocracy.net
The money was eventually refunded and paid by the prime minister himself. But authorities now believe there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect an offence may have occurred.
The Cabinet Office also revealed that Johnson charged taxpayers £28,647 for part of the refurb, including painting and sanding his floorboards.
For months, government officials have remained silent about how the work was funded, amid speculation about a ‘phantom’ donation.
But a report, quietly released today, confirms that invoices for the refurbishment work were “received and paid for by the Cabinet Office and subsequently recharged to the Conservative Party in July 2020”.
This came on top of the prime minister’s official budget for the upkeep of his Downing Street apartment, which is funded by taxpayer money.
But there are still questions over how much the additional bills came to, and how the Conservative Party raised money to pay for it.
A previous report by Lord Geidt, the prime minister’s ethics adviser, named the Tory peer and major party donor Lord Brownlow as being behind the donation.
Geidt’s report said the bills were “recharged to the Conservative Party in late June 2020 in anticipation of the yet to be established [Downing Street] Trust repaying the amount”. But Geidt did not spell out whether the Conservative Party ended up actually paying the Cabinet Office the bill.
Today’s Cabinet Office report is therefore the first official confirmation of Conservative Party funds being used to pay the refurb bill. The planned Downing Street Trust was never set up.
Geidt wrote in May: “I advise that an interest did arise in [Boris Johnson’s] capacity as a Minister of the Crown. This is as a result of the support provided by Conservative Campaign Headquarters and by Lord Brownlow to the Prime Minister.”
By law, all political parties have to report all donations over £7,500 to the Electoral Commission. An Electoral Commission investigation by the watchdog is currently under way, after it said it had “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence” may have been committed.
But no refurb-related donation by Brownlow into Conservative Party funds has yet been reported.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, has claimed the prime minister’s “plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.
Details of the arrangement were first exposed in early March. Today’s report says that Johnson only covered “all final costs” out of his own pocket in the same month.
It is unclear how the prime minister was suddenly in a position to pay the outstanding bill, especially as his widely reported financial worries had precluded him from paying it in the first place. Johnson has not declared any additional income over his normal levels recently, nor has he registered any loans.
The government had already spent £28,627 of its official annual budget of £30,000 for renovating the prime minister’s flat. The money went to Mitie Facilities Management, including for “painting and sanding of floorboards”.
The Cabinet Office then received several more invoices – reportedly from top designer Lulu Lytle, starting with a £58,000 bill.
A photograph subsequently emerged of Lytle visiting Downing Street. A leaked memo suggests that the Conservative Party’s co-chairman Ben Elliot, who is Johnson’s friend and fellow Old Etonian, knew that the still-undeclared £58,000 was earmarked for the Downing Street refurb.
The full refurb bill is believed to be a six-figure sum.
Neither the Conservative Party nor Lord Brownlow have responded to previous requests by openDemocracy for comment on the refurbishment.