Ex-civil service chief lashes Boris Johnson over £58,000 flat refurb

Ex-civil service chief lashes Boris Johnson over £58,000 Downing St flat renovation saying it is ‘very late’ to declare ‘Tory donation’ – amid warnings PM could face ‘serious sanction’ for failing to register loan

  • PM Boris Johnson’s claim he paid for the Downing St flat is under fresh scrutiny
  • It has been confirmed Conservative Party paid the £58,000 bill nine months ago 
  • Whitehall sources say The Prime Minister may have to declare how it was funded
  • Ministerial register and MPs’ register might both need to be updated ‘very late’ 

A former civil service head today lashed Boris Johnson over a lavish £60,000 refurbishment of his Downing Street flat – amid warnings he could face a ‘serious sanction’ for failing to register a loan.

Lord O’Donnell said transparency over the murky arrangements was ‘very late’, warning that PMs need to ‘set an example’ and ‘obey the rules’.

Conservative chiefs are believed to have secretly approved a £58,000 payment to the Cabinet Office in July last year to cover the works – which was on top of the £30,000 annual sum for upkeep that the taxpayer foots.

However, the government has insisted that the premier has now funded the overhaul himself. Downing Street has refused to deny reports that Mr Johnson secured a loan from a Tory donor – believed to be financier Lord Brownlow – to pay for the decor.

But experts say that should have been declared in the MPs’ register of interests within a month. 

Mr Johnson has previously been berated by the Commons standards watchdog for repeatedly failing to declare financial interests. In a report in Spring 2019 – shortly before he became PM – the cross-party committee said: ‘Should we conclude in future that Mr Johnson has committed any further breaches of the rules on registration, we will regard this as a matter which may call for more serious sanction.’

There is also speculation that if a donor footed the cost, Mr Johnson could face a significant tax bill because HMRC would consider it a benefit in kind.   

Boris Johnson, pictured with fiancee Carrie Symonds, faces having to declare how the costly Downing Street flat refurb was funded

Mr Johnson has previously been berated by the Commons standards watchdog for repeatedly failing to declare financial interests. Pictured, a committee report from Spring 2019

Lord O’Donnell said transparency over the murky arrangements was ‘very late’, warning that PMs need to ‘set an example’ and ‘obey the rules’

July 2019: Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds, pictured, move into the four-bedroom flat. Miss Symonds is reportedly keen to get rid of the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’.

July 2020: The Conservative Party pays £58,000 to the Cabinet Office for the cost of refurbishing the flat.

October 2020: Tory donor Lord Brownlow emails party chairman Ben Elliot and head of fundraising Mike Chattey, saying he has given £58,000 to cover payments ‘the party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed ‘Downing Street Trust’. Lord Brownlow says he chairs the trust, which reportedly planned to preserve the famous street’s heritage and decor.

March 6, 2021: The Daily Mail reveals that Mr Johnson wanted Tory donors to contribute to the cost of redecorating the flat, and that the party tried to launch a cover-up. No 10 insists there has been no wrongdoing.

March 20, 2021: The Electoral Commission quizzes Tory chiefs over the funding of the makeover and has asked Mr Elliot to explain whether the Conservative Party complied with laws on political donations.

April 21, 2021: The Mail publishes emails sent by Lord Brownlow to Mr Elliot.

April 22, 2021: It emerges that Whitehall’s most senior mandarin, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, is investigating how the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat was paid for.

April 23, 2021: The Cabinet Office announces that beyond basic taxpayer-funded work on the flat any wider refurbishment costs ‘have been met by the PM personally’. No 10 does not give details of how Mr Johnson paid the £58,000.

Mr Johnson’s former chief of staff Dominic Cummings says he warned the PM in 2020 he could be breaking the law if he asked Tory donors to pay for the refurbishment, calling proposal ‘unethical, foolish and possible illegal’.

April 26, 2021: Mr Case tells MPs the idea of setting up a trust to fund the upkeep of Downing Street has been looked into but it could not pay for refurbishments to the Prime Minister’s flat.

Whitehall sources have told the Mail Mr Johnson may be forced publicly to declare exactly how the costly refurbishment was funded.

One source said further details were likely to be revealed in an updated register of ministerial interests, which could be released as early as this week. 

But Mr Johnson first has to appoint a new adviser on ministerial standards – a post that has been vacant since Sir Alex Allen resigned in November in protest at the PM’s refusal to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel over bullying allegations.

The appointment was due to be announced last week but the preferred candidate is said to be ‘wobbling’ about whether to accept the post.

The ministerial register is  

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case yesterday confirmed Mr Johnson had wanted to set up a charitable trust more than 12 months ago to pay for the flat’s refit. But he said it was now clear that it would be illegal for a charitable trust to pay for the upkeep of private quarters.

He refused to say whether political donations had been accepted to help fund the project.

Mr Johnson also ducked the question yesterday, telling reporters: ‘If there’s anything to be said about that, any declaration to be made, that will of course be made in due course.’  

The Cabinet Office informed parliament on Friday that the PM has now paid the bill for his renovations. 

A senior Tory told the Mail he had been forced to take out a loan to settle the bill. 

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Lord O’Donnell said if Mr Johnson wanted to focus on policy rather than a sleaze row the best thing was to ‘obey the rules’. 

‘The issue is really whether we expect our MPs, ministers and PMs to obey the rules. If there are a set of rules presumably they are there for a good reason,’ the former Cabinet Secretary said.

‘They can be changed if people think they are wrong. But if they are there we would expect people, and ministers in particular, to obey those rules. They are required to under the ministerial code.

‘Transparency is always a good thing.’

Asked whether it mattered given there does not appear to be any taxpayer money involved, the peer said: ‘We are very late, aren’t we. Let’s be honest in this case… there should be a set-up to ensure that these things happen.

‘PMs have to set an example and therefore they should abide by the rules. I think that is really important.’

He added: ‘The simple way of not being worried about all this is just obey all the rules.’

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said all declarations will be made in the ‘usual way’. 

In a round of interviews, she said it was ‘no surprise’ that Mr Johnson wanted to make changes to the flat as he has a young family.

‘The Prime Minister has probably spent more time in the Number 10 flat than prime ministers normally would,’ she told LBC.

‘Also, the birth of his young son, having his family there, so I think it’s no surprise if people with a different sort of family atmosphere moving into a private residence in Number 10 want to make changes.’

Asked if she would spend £5,900 on an armchair, Ms Coffey said: ‘The point is that the Prime Minister has paid for those.

‘I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to spend their money how they wish, when they are considering their family in the residence where they spend a lot of time.’ 

There is a labyrinthine money trail used for the cost of the £58,000 renovations. Pictured, Lulu Lytle furnishings

It is thought the Cabinet Office forwarded the money from Tory HQ to the contractors, including upmarket designer Lulu Lytle

Mr Johnson’s sister Rachel yesterday defended the overhaul of the ‘light and airy’ flat shared by the PM and his fiancee Carrie Symonds. 

‘They have a baby about to turn one and maybe it needed some spiffing up,’ she said.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: ‘All reportable donations to the Conservative Party are correctly declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them and comply fully with the law.

‘Gifts and benefits received in a ministerial capacity are, and will continue to be, declared in Government transparency returns.’

Lord Brownlow did not respond to a request for comment.

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