Dark Money Investigations: Analysis

7 ways Boris Johnson’s Downing Street refurb may have broken rules

There are at least seven different sets of rules that Boris Johnson, his party and his government may have broken in his £200,000 flat makeover

Seth Thévoz
26 April 2021, 3.58pm
The prime minister faces questions over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The makeover of the prime minister’s flat, reported to have cost up to £200,000, has caused nothing but headaches for the government. Ever since the first carefully phrased denials were issued, this story has kept escalating.

As openDemocracy revealed last month, Boris Johnson has been breaking his own government’s transparency rules by failing to publish an up-to-date register of ministers’ interests. The prime minister’s own former senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, said Johnson planned to “have donors secretly pay” for the work.

Here’s what we do know. The civil service refused to pay £58,000 for luxury designer Lulu Lytle’s June 2020 invoice. There were also concerns about the total bill exceeding the £30,000-limit on taxpayer funds for the project.

In July 2020, with Lytle’s invoice deadline looming and Johnson unable to afford it himself, the Conservatives are said to have used Tory party funds to meet the bill.

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In order to cover this amount, Tory donors from the Leader’s Group later dug deep – Tory peer David Brownlow paid £58,000 in October 2020. openDemocracy understands the amount was later repaid back to Brownlow, and that he looked at setting up a Trust with himself as chair, to avoid having to disclose the donation. Lord Brownlow has not commented on this.

The Conservative Party denies currently using its funds to pay the bill – but that was never the allegation. It has refused to be drawn in on whether it had previously used its funds in that way.

Last week, Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True told the House of Lords the extra cost had now been “met by the prime minister personally”. This raises even more questions – Boris Johnson has not declared any income windfall, so how can he suddenly afford a £58,000 bill that he couldn’t afford last July? Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves suggested Johnson was “Possibly breaking the law.”

This has all the signs of a government cover-up underway for nine months. But openDemocracy has identified at least seven different sets of rules that the prime minister, his party and his government may have broken.

1) Electoral law

Any political party receiving a donation of over £7,500 has to report it to the Electoral Commission, or the party would be breaking the law. Similarly, large loans also have to be reported, as do donations that are later returned – including rejected donations.

The Conservative Party’s detailed returns for 2020 made no mention of any £58,000 donation from Lord Brownlow, nor of any other donors to cover the flat. An Electoral Commission probe is underway.

At the very least, the Conservative Party is facing a fine, if it emerges – as suggested by a leaked memo – that a £58,000 donation went undeclared.

Dominic Cummings’ blog post last week suggests “donors” (plural) were approached – the first public confirmation that more than one donor may have contributed to the refurb fund. If so, that opens the possibility of more “phantom” donations emerging.

2) Ministerial Code

Johnson is covered by a strict Ministerial Code. It says “no minister should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation.”

It also says a list of “ministers’ interests will be published twice yearly”. As an openDemocracy exclusive in March showed, the government has been able to get out of Boris Johnson having to report the donation, by simply having the entire UK government breach the Ministerial Code, in failing to publish an updated list. The last list was published in July 2020, prior to the Downing Street donations.

Boris Johnson has not declared any income windfall, so how can he suddenly afford a £58,000 bill that he couldn’t afford last July?

The government has not appointed a successor to the senior civil servant overseeing the list, who resigned over six months ago. Testifying to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee today, cabinet secretary Simon Case said that an announcement was expected within “days rather than weeks, but don’t quote me on it”. Michael Gove told MPs today it would happen “shortly”. openDemocracy understands journalists had been briefed that an appointment was to be announced on Monday 19 April, but none was made – The Daily Telegraph now suggests the Downing Street row may have put the government’s preferred candidate off accepting the post.

Some ministers have tried suggesting the list’s publication is late simply due to ministers being busy amidst a pandemic and Brexit, but the last edition from July 2020 still managed to be published at the height of the pandemic.

3) Parliamentary rules

As an MP, Boris Johnson has to report all personal donations that may sway his vote. These are recorded in his entry in the House of Commons’ Register of Members’ Interests, last updated only two weeks ago.

It makes no mention of any £58,000 donation.

Any failure to declare a donation – particularly one of this size, for an MP of his importance – would be a serious matter. Johnson has already been forced to apologise to MPs for failing to declare income on time. As a repeat offender, he would likely face more serious penalties.

Johnson may try exploiting a loophole used by some ministers in the past, saying that as the donation was made in his capacity as a minister, it should instead be declared in his List of Ministerial Interests. Except – Catch 22 – the government is no longer releasing that updated list, and shows no sign of doing so.

The parliamentary commissioner for standards in the Commons, who enforces the parliamentary rules, has so far refused to investigate, although openDemocracy understands that several campaigning groups and individuals have tried referring the case to them.

4) Ministerial gifts

Johnson may try to include the donation in his ministerial list of gifts. We do not know if this is the case, because the last list, covering July-September 2020, was published several months late, and the October-December 2020 list is still months overdue for publication. This is a further breach of the Ministerial Code.

The Ministerial Code also says that “any minister in doubt or difficulty over [gifts and hospitality] should seek the advice of their permanent secretary." openDemocracy has tried sending the Cabinet Office a Freedom of Information request covering any such advice given to the prime minister, but while it acknowledged receipt of our request over a month ago, it has not replied at all, even after being reminded – a clear breach of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. openDemocracy has complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

5) The tax authorities

The suggestion that the prime minister has suddenly had a large windfall, allowing him to pay a £58,000 bill he couldn’t meet last year, has drawn the attention of the tax authorities. A source at HMRC told the i newspaper that Johnson would be “treated like any other taxpayer”, and that it has sought “clarification” on any benefit in kind from loans or donations from the refurbishment.

Analysis by journalist Tim Walker suggests any gift of this kind would qualify for the 45% tax rate. This would suggest a number of problems for Johnson: any £58,000 gift would leave him with a £26,000 tax bill. If he wanted £58,000 after tax, he would need £106,000 in gifts.

Speaking yesterday, cabinet minister Liz Truss said, “Everything will be declared in line, including for tax purposes”, suggesting HMRC had yet to be notified.

Johnson has already been forced to apologise to MPs for failing to declare income on time

6) Cabinet Office annual report

The Cabinet Office has long suggested that everything will eventually be disclosed in its annual report.

However, publishing details in this annual report (due in July 2021) will not absolve the prime minister of his other reporting requirements – he still needs to make declarations of interest as a minister, an MP and a taxpayer, while the Conservative Party still needs to declare any donations, even if they are later returned. None of these disclosures has happened.

The accounts of the annual report will also need to satisfy their auditor, the comptroller and auditor general to the House of Commons, Amyas Morse. He is probably conducting the audit right now. openDemocracy contacted the auditor’s office but it said it was unable to offer any comment on work not yet published.

7) Obstructing FOI

The Cabinet Office is already in breach of the Freedom of Information Act in failing to respond at all to an openDemocracy Freedom of Information request placed nearly six weeks ago.

Journalists are finding this is an increasingly common experience, especially when FOIing the Cabinet Office. As openDemocracy revealed last year, the Cabinet Office runs a ‘secretive’ Clearing House unit that vets responses to ‘sensitive’ FOIs. And all this is part of a wider pattern of the government simply ignoring the law when it suits them.

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