CONSERVATIVE PARTY FINED: Boris Johnson facing more questions over flat refurb after Tories fined £17,800
CONSERVATIVE PARTY FINED: Boris Johnson is facing questions over whether he misled an investigation into donations for refurbishments to his Downing Street flat after a watchdog saw the Conservative Party fined £17,800.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner accused the Prime Minister of having “lied” to his standards adviser by saying he did not know who was behind the payment but No 10 insisted Mr Johnson had been honest and followed the rules “at all times”.
The Electoral Commission issued the fine on Thursday after ruling that the Conservative Party had not followed the law over donations by Lord Brownlow to help cover the renovations, with costs exceeding £112,500.
The watchdog said the Tories had failed to “accurately report a donation and keep a proper accounting record” of the money handed over by the Tory peer in October 2020.
But its report raised further questions because it discussed evidence showing Johnson had sent the peer a WhatsApp message in November 2020 “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence”, to which he agreed.
Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson had not lied to ministerial standards adviser Lord Geidt despite telling him he had know knowledge of the payments until immediately prior to media reports in February.
Ms Rayner said: “It is right that the Electoral Commission has fined the Conservative Party but the Prime Minister must now explain why he lied to the British public saying he didn’t know who was behind No 11 flat refurb – all the while he was WhatsApping the donor asking for more money.
“Boris Johnson has taken the British public for fools. He’s not only broken the law but made a mockery of the standards we expect from our prime ministers.”
The deputy Labour called for a fresh investigation from Lord Geidt and for Parliamentary Standards Commission Kathryn Stone to investigate Mr Johnson, saying he was “in flagrant breach” of both the MPs’ code of conduct and the Ministerial Code.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman denied Mr Johnson had lied and insisted he has “acted in accordance with the rules at all times” and has “made all necessary declarations”.
Downing Street’s defence amounted to Mr Johnson not knowing that Lord Brownlow was providing the money to the “blind trust” he was organising.
“Lord Brownlow was the chair of a blind trust and acted in accordance with his experience of managing blind trusts in that way, the Prime Minister’s discussions with Lord Brownlow were done without him knowing the underlying donor of that donation,” the official spokesman said.
Amid suggestions Lord Geidt could resign if he was mislead, the spokesman said he remained in post and that Mr Johnson had full confidence in him, but he could not say whether Lord Geidt had been shown the WhatsApp exchanges.
In his report from May, Lord Geidt said that despite “some limited” contact during the period in question the “record shows no evidence that the Prime Minister had been informed by Lord Brownlow that he had personally settled the total costs”.
For the “credibility of this inquiry”, Lord Geidt said he tested the assertions that Mr Johnson did not know “either the fact or the method of the costs of refurbishing the apartment having been paid”.
He said the individuals involved “confirmed to me that these assertions are correct”, adding: “I have also spoken in similar terms to the Prime Minister who confirms that he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.”
But the Electoral Commission said that on November 29 last year Mr Johnson sent a WhatsApp message to Lord Brownlow “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence”.
“Lord Brownlow agreed to do so, and also explained that the proposed trust had not yet been set up but that he knew where the funding was coming from,” the report added.
The refurbishments to the flat above No 11 sparked sustained scrutiny of Mr Johnson’s finances, with the works vastly exceeding the £30,000 annual limit afforded to the Prime Minister.
In fining the Tories, the Electoral Commission said the the party had repeatedly said the money had not been a donation but had been described as “a donation to the Prime Minister via the party”, a “ministerial matter”, the repayment of a loan, and at one stage a “gift to the nation”.
Its investigation – which took in more than 2,400 pages of evidence – found that the party failed to fully report a donation of £67,801.72 from Huntswood Associates Limited in October 2020, including £52,801.72 connected to the costs of refurbishment.
The commission said Huntswood Associates – whose director is Lord Brownlow – transferred £67,801.72 to the Conservative Party on October 19, 2020.
Some £15,000 of that amount was for an event, but the commission said he “specifically identified the remaining £52,801.72 as a donation to cover an earlier payment of that value made by the party to the Cabinet Office”.
The Cabinet Office had paid three invoices over summer 2020, totalling the same amount, for the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat, and these payments were made on the agreement that the sum would be repaid by the party.
But after the fallout Mr Johnson agreed to pay the full amount himself, leading to the Cabinet Office being refunded by the supplier – Soane Britain, which is owned by interior designer Lulu Lytle – in March 2021 and then subsequently refunding the Conservative Party.
But the commission said that in donation records submitted on January 27, 2021, while the party reported the £15,000 from Huntswood Associates, it failed to report the £52,801.72.
The commission also concluded that the reference in the party’s financial records to the payment of £52,801.72 made by the party for the refurbishment was not accurate as it was referred to as a “blind trust loan”.
Its report revealed an additional £59,747.40 was paid to the supplier by Huntswood Associates, bringing the total to £112,549.12.
Lord Geidt’s investigation detailed how the work – which began in April 2020 while the Prime Minister was in hospital with coronavirus – was meant to be funded by a Downing Street trust chaired by Lord Brownlow.
But this never happened, and therefore the commission said it was wrong to record the donation in this way.
At the time, Lord Geidt said: “The Prime Minister – unwisely, in my view – allowed the refurbishment of the apartment at No 11 Downing Street to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”.
On Thursday, Louise Edwards, the director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, said: ““Our investigation into the Conservative Party found that the laws around the reporting and recording of donations were not followed.
“The party’s decisions and actions reflected serious failings in its compliance systems.”
The Tories said they were considering whether to appeal against the fine, with a spokesman saying: “We are considering whether to appeal this decision and will make a decision within 28 working days.
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