Boris Johnson's standards advisor sent an excoriating letter to the PM over his handling of donation probe
- Boris Johnson's standards advisor noted "grave concern" at the PM's response to a probe into the Downing Street flat refurbishment.
- It examined what Johnson knew about who was paying for the refurbishment of his flat.
- Johnson offered a "humble and sincere apology" to Geidt for his failures.
Boris Johnson has been criticized by his independent standards advisor over how he responded to an investigation into the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
Lord Geidt reopened his investigation into the Downing Street flat refurbishment in December 2021, after a separate probe into the refurbishment by the Electoral Commission revealed the existence of text messages between Johnson and Lord Brownlow, a Tory peer and donor who was going to chair a charitable trust to fund the refurbishment. Brownlow ultimately paid for the cost of the refurbishment.
These text messages were not disclosed to Geidt in his initial investigation of May 2021.
In letters published today between Johnson and Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister's independent adviser on ministers' interests, Geidt says:
- Johnson's response "shook my confidence precisely because potential and real failures of process occurred in more than one part of the apparatus of government".
- It demonstrated "insufficient regard or respect for the role of the independent adviser".
- The new revelations had made him "test my confidence in my earlier conclusions".
- And that "incremental efforts to reclaim public confidence […] have again been placed at risk by the evident failure to meet the very highest standards of disclosure expected in this present case".
Geidt is also highly critical of the Cabinet Office, the government department which supports Downing Street, for failing to bring the messages to his attention when they were offered to the department by Brownlow. The Cabinet Office declined to accept the messages, in what Geidt describes as an "extraordinary" decision.
Such messages were "highly material" (original emphasis) to Geidt's investigation, and it was "very unfortunate" they were not made available, Geidt says.
Geidt also expresses his "grave concern" at the Cabinet Office's failure to examine Johnson's phone fully for relevant communications.
Johnson offered a "humble and sincere apology" to Geidt for his failures.
It is unclear if Geidt believes the Prime Minister has fulfilled his "guarantee" of publishing Geidt's advice and conclusions in a "timely manner" by failing to publish the letters for two weeks, given Geidt's view expressed in his first letter of December 17 2021 that "early publication in the coming days would, in my view, meet that guarantee".
Geidt's original investigation and the text messages
Geidt previously investigated the refurbishment in May 2021, following media reports questioning the money trail behind the £52,000 redecoration.
Geidt cleared Johnson of any breaches of the ministerial code, finding that Johnson had "unwisely" allowed the refurbishment process to continue without "more rigorous regard for how this would be funded."
While Geidt has upheld his original conclusions, he noted that these later revelations may have prompted further questions, adding: "I doubt whether I would have concluded, without qualification… that 'at the point when the PM became aware, he took steps to make the relevant declaration and to seek advice."
In the previously undisclosed messages, Johnson asked Brownlow for more money, suggesting an awareness of who was funding the refurbishment.
These messages were not revealed to Geidt during his investigation. The BBC reported Geidt was "unhappy" at being misled.
It is unclear how the Electoral Commission acquired the messages.
Even if Geidt had found Johnson had breached the ministerial code, it would not have led to any definite consequences as the ministerial code is set out and governed by the Prime Minister, who is responsible for any disciplinary actions for breaches of the code.
Johnson has claimed he could not provide Geidt with the text messages in May 2021 as he had recently changed his phone number.
Johnson changed his phone number after it was revealed at the end of April 2021 by the newsletter Popbitch that his number had been publicly available on the internet for 15 years.
Changes to Geidt's role
In his letter to Geidt, Johnson proposes "two specific steps" to "draw a line under these events" and "strengthen" the role of the independent advisor.
The first is an instruction to the Cabinet Office to provide Geidt with "more dedicated support from officials as part of your secretariat", and the second is to ensure Geidt is given "the highest standards of support and attention when pursuing your work."
Sir Alex Allan, a former independent advisor on ministers' interests, told Insider that when he was in office, he was supported by the Propriety and Ethics team in the Cabinet Office.
This team is currently also supporting an investigation led by civil servant Sue Gray into parties at Downing Street during 2020.
Johnson also offers Geidt a meeting early in 2022 to discuss "a number of reports recommending changes to the wider remit of the Independent Adviser and to the Ministerial Code". Such reports including recommendations by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has suggested the independent adviser should be able to instigate investigations by themselves.
Geidt welcomed this offer, saying that he expects to be able to "describe the role of Independent Adviser in terms of considerably greater authority, independence and effect, consistent with the ambitions for the office that [Johnson has] set out" by April 2022.