LONDON — Boris Johnson was forced to give a groveling apology to his top standards adviser after failing to disclose evidence crucial to an ethics probe.
The U.K. prime minister offered a “humble and sincere apology” for putting Downing Street official Christopher Geidt in an embarrassing position over the scandal.
Geidt was asked to investigate cash handed over by a Conservative donor to pay for an expensive refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street flat, to ensure there were no conflicts of interest involved.
But after Geidt issued his report, it emerged there were WhatsApp messages between Johnson and the donor in question, David Brownlow, which had not been disclosed to him during the probe.
In subsequent letters, Johnson said he did not remember the exchange of messages and had been unable to provide them because he had changed his mobile phone.
“You appreciate the security issues faced at the time meant that I did not have access to my previous device and did not recall the message exchange,” he wrote in a letter sent last month and published Thursday.
In response, Geidt said the messages did not change his conclusion that there was no conflict of interest in the case.
But Geidt added that, had he seen the messages during his original probe, he might have decided Johnson’s claims that he knew “nothing” about payments for the flat were a breach of transparency rules.
Newly-released messages exchanged between Johnson and Brownlow in November 2020 risk further embarrassment for the prime minister about the effort to secure funds for the flat’s upkeep beyond a £30,000-a-year public allowance.
In them, Johnson complained that parts of the Downing Street flat were “a bit of a tip” and said he was keen for high-end designer Lulu Lytle to “get on with” the renovation. He offered to put Brownlow in touch with Lytle to secure the necessary approvals.
In a postscript which has raised further questions about the donor’s input into government policy, Johnson told Brownlow he was “[working] on the great exhibition plan” and “will revert.” The Great Exhibition was a Victorian showcase of British achievements and Brownlow had been pressing for a 21st century follow-up. In his response, Brownlow thanked Johnson for considering “GE2”.
Asked whether Johnson had agreed to support proposals for such a festival in exchange for Brownlow securing cash for the renovation, the prime minister’s spokesman told reporters Thursday “it was an idea that wasn’t taken forward.”
The spokesperson said ministers had instead opted to hold Festival UK, an event planned for later this year to showcase post-Brexit innovation and technology.
However, the register of ministerial meetings shows that Brownlow met then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden last January last year to discuss plans for a “Great Exhibition 2.0.”
Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, seized on the latest row to claim Johnson “has little regard for the rules or the truth.”
“The ministerial code requires ministers to act with transparency and honesty. It is simply impossible to read these exchanges and conclude that the Prime Minister has not breached these aspects of the Code,” she said.
But the prime minister’s spokesman insisted Geidt’s conclusions exonerated Johnson. “Lord Geidt has not changed his assessment that no conflict of interest arose from the support provided by Lord Brownlow,” he said. “Lord Geidt now considers the matter concluded.”
Geidt’s letter to Johnson admonishes the PM for not disclosing the contact with Brownlow, saying the failure to disclose the messages exposed “a signal deficiency in the standards upon which the independent adviser and, by extension, the prime minister, have an absolute right to rely in establishing the truth in such matters.” He told Johnson the omission “shook my confidence” and further complained about not being told of other information in case.
Johnson said he would bolster Geidt’s team and suggest ways to strengthen his powers, a move Geidt welcomed.