Boris Johnson is facing fresh sleaze allegations after appearing to back a plan for a new “Great Exhibition” put forward by the Tory donor who funded his luxury flat redecorations.
The prime minister told Lord Brownlow he was “on the great exhibition plan” in a WhatsApp message in which he described his Downing Street rooms as “a bit of a tip” – and pleaded for more money.
Two months later, the donor joined a meeting with the culture secretary “to discuss plans for Great Exhibition 2.0” – a showcase of British innovation later renamed “Festival UK” – a government document revealed.
The link was exposed after Mr Johnson’s ethics adviser demanded to know why WhatsApp exchanges were kept secret in his probe into the controversial £142,000 refurbishment.
In a new letter to the prime minister, Christopher Geidt attacked the failure to pass on the messages – blamed on a change of mobile phone – as “extraordinary”, warning public faith in government had been dented.
He continued to conclude there was no breach of the ministerial code, but did not fully exonerate Mr Johnson, ahead of a further possible inquiry by the parliamentary commissioner for standards.
Lord Geidt expressed “doubt” on whether he would have found that the prime minister “took steps to make the relevant declaration”, had he known the full story.
Opposition parties demanded to know what Mr Johnson promised about an exhibition – after Lord Brownlow’s WhatsApp reply pledged to get the flat funding “sorted ASAP” and added: “Thanks for thinking about GE2.”
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, alleged: “It appears that Lord Brownlow had access to the prime minister and culture secretary to discuss Great Exhibition 2 because he was paying for his luxury flat renovations.”
And Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, said: “It stinks of the worst kind of Conservative cronyism, with Boris Johnson seemingly happy to scratch his donor’s back to get his flat spruced up in return.”
Downing Street insisted the idea for “Great Exhibition 2” was “not taken forward” – arguing “Festival UK” was a different project entirely – but was unable to explain the differences between them.
Asked if the prime minister’s support was sought in exchange for “giving him some cash for the flat refurb”, the spokesperson replied: “No. This isn’t something that we’ve taken forward.”
It then emerged that, on 18 January last year, then culture secretary Oliver Dowden met with Lord Brownlow and Royal Albert Hall bosses “to discuss plans for Great Exhibition 2.0”.
Ms Rayner added: “No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals. Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer.”
The new controversy comes on top of a stinging rebuke delivered by Lord Geidt for the failure to hand over the messages for his inquiry, which concluded in May last year.
No 10 admitted officials failed to take up Lord Brownlow’s offer to provide “all the material”, arguing it feared compromising a parallel probe by the Electoral Commission.
In his letter to his adviser, Mr Johnson agreed it was not “acceptable” that the Cabinet Office “at the very least did not inform you of the position they had taken”.
He offered a “humble and sincere apology” for what happened – but insisted he did not recall asking Lord Brownlow for the funds for the lavish refit of the No 11 flat.
Interviewed at a vaccination centre, the prime minister was asked if he expected people to believe he had forgotten to disclose key evidence simply because it was no longer stored on his phone.
“I followed the ministerial guidance at all times – and yes,” he replied, declining to expand on what happened.
The released messages revealed he told the donor: “Parts of our flat are still a bit of a tip and am keen to allow Lulu Lytle to get on with it,” referring to the designer whose wallpaper sells at more than £800 a roll.
Lord Brownlow funded the redecorations, as attempts to set up a blind trust faltered, before Mr Johnson finally settled the bill – standing at £112,000, with £30,000 met by the taxpayer.
The controversy was reignited when last month’s Electoral Commission report revealed the prime minister personally asked the peer for more funds, in November 2020.
Yet he told Lord Geidt that he knew nothing about the way the work was being funded until three months later, triggering accusations that the adviser was misled.
In his letter to his watchdog, sent on 21 December, Mr Johnson blamed replacing his phone number due to “security issues” – which meant he “did not have access to my previous device and did not recall the message exchange”.