Boris Johnson under fire over Tory donor’s Great Exhibition planon January 7, 2022 at 12:41 pm

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Labour accuses Boris Johnson of offering access to ministers in return for financial favours.

Boris Johnson

Image source, PA Media

Boris Johnson is facing questions over his backing for a Tory donor’s pet project while at the same time asking him for help to pay for a designer revamp of his Downing Street flat.

Text messages published on Thursday show the PM asking Lord Brownlow to clear spending on the renovations as the flat was “a bit of a tip”.

He told Lord Brownlow he would take action on his “great exhibition plan”.

The Tory peer then had a meeting with a government minister about this plan.

Lord Brownlow is a trustee of London’s Albert Hall and he, along with other representatives of the venue, met then culture secretary Oliver Dowden to discuss the possibility of hosting the cultural festival.

The meeting took place at the Albert Hall six weeks after the text exchange with the prime minister. No 10 said it was arranged through “the usual official channels”.

In the end, the exhibition did not happen, but Labour say Lord Brownlow’s November 2020 text exchanges with the PM still matter.

“Lord Brownlow appears to have access to the prime minister because he was paying for the flat renovations. If that is the case, that is corruption,” the party said.

Speaking to the BBC, Labour’s shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said: “The issue is not whether it [the festival] happened, it is whether rich people can pay to get access to government ministers to try and influence them over how they decide to spend taxpayers’ money.”

Designer Lulu Lytle

Image source, PA Media

Business Minister Paul Scully denied that the prime minister was linking support for a Great Exhibition with financial support for flat renovations in his messages.

He said the Great Exhibition plan was passed to “the right channels” at the culture department and that Mr Johnson “had no idea” who would be paying for the flat refurbishments, believing the funding would come through a blind trust.

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Graphic showing Boris Johnson's text exchange with Lord Brownlow

In reality, Lord Brownlow supplied the money, both directly and indirectly, but Mr Johnson says he has now covered all the costs out of his own pocket.

The Conservative Party was fined £17,800 last month after the Electoral Commission found it had failed to accurately declare all of Lord Brownlow’s donations towards the renovation.

The Downing Street buildings are publicly-owned and prime ministers receive an annual grant of £30,000 to spend on their living quarters – if they want to spend more than that they have fund it out of their own pocket.

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Analysis box by Jonathan Blake, political correspondent

The saga of the Downing Street flat refurbishment has left several questions hanging.

Why did the key messages between Lord Brownlow and the prime minister take so long to come to light?

They were found by the Electoral Commission’s investigation, but not inquiries triggered by the government itself.

Can or should more be done to record ministers’ communications, amid accusations of “government by WhatsApp”?

Critics argue that informal channels, like the messaging service, lack transparency and allow inappropriate access and influence.

Who or what can hold the prime minister to account?

Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests,could see his powers increased and Boris Johnson himself said he wanted to “strengthen” the office.

Is another investigation looming?

While cleared of breaking ministerial rules, Mr Johnson could face an investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner Kathryn Stone into his conduct as an MP.

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The texts between Mr Johnson and Lord Brownlow were revealed during a separate investigation by the elections watchdog into the funding of the refurbishment, estimated to have cost £112,000.

Mr Johnson was strongly criticised by his own standards adviser for not disclosing the messages during an official inquiry into the Downing Street flat renovations.

Labour says it has now asked Kathryn Stone, the watchdog overseeing MPs standards to investigate the matter.

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What was the Great Exhibition?

Great Exhibition

Image source, Getty Images

Lord Brownlow proposed the idea of a Great Exhibition festival in partnership with the Royal Albert Hall, a London venue for whom he acts as a Trustee.

The plan was inspired by the original Great Exhibition held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, showcasing new technologies from Britain and its empire at the time.

The peer discussed the proposal with then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden but in the the end the government did not pursue the idea.

Instead the government will hold a series of events across the UK, entitled “Unboxed” including light installations and a project encouraging people to grow crops.

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