Dark Money Investigations: News

Tories fined £17,800 as Boris Johnson accused of lying about flat refurb

The prime minister personally contacted a Tory donor on WhatsApp to ask for help funding his redecoration, Electoral Commission finds

Martin Williams Seth Thévoz
9 December 2021, 12.56pm
Records reveal Boris Johnson was personally involved in securing a loan for his flat refurb
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Conservative Party has been fined £17,800 for “failing to accurately report a donation” that funded the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s flat.

A scathing report by the Electoral Commission accused the party of “serious failings” and having a “lack of regard for the law”.

It found that a £67,801 donation from Conservative peer Lord Brownlow had not been fully declared.

Nearly £53,000 of the money was specifically intended to cover redecorations that had taken place in 2020.

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Records reveal Boris Johnson was personally involved in securing a loan for the refurb, by sending a WhatsApp message to Brownlow. In May, the prime minister claimed he did not know who had funded the refurbishment.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, accused Johnson of “taking us for fools”, adding: “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.

“Failing to report that a multimillionaire Conservative Party donor paid for the Downing Street flat refurbishment is not only a gross breach of the rules but makes a mockery of the standards we expect from our prime ministers.”

The PM must explain why he lied to the British public, saying he didn’t know who was behind flat refurb

Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader

The refurb took place after Johnson’s wife, Carrie, took a dislike to the decorations inherited from Theresa May. Reports described the flat as a “John Lewis furniture nightmare”.

The work was reportedly overseen by top designer Lulu Lytle and included £840-a-roll gold wallpaper, which keeps peeling off.

For months, government officials remained silent about how it was funded, despite speculation about a ‘phantom’ donation. Today’s report now confirms a long trail of financial transactions were used to cover the costs.

Money trail

The refurb was originally funded by the Cabinet Office in summer 2020 – under the condition that the money would be repaid by the Conservative Party.

After the money was refunded, the Conservative Party turned to one of its major donors, Lord Brownlow, who agreed to cover the costs. Money was given via Brownlow’s company, Huntswood Associates Limited.

In March, openDemocracy revealed how the prime minister was breaching transparency rules by allowing large payments to be kept secret for up to eight months.

The following month, it emerged that the Conservative Party may have also broken election law by failing to properly declare the donation.

Finally, the party confirmed that Johnson had “personally settled the costs incurred by Lord Brownlow”.

The prime minister also charged taxpayers £28,647 for part of the refurb, including painting and sanding his floorboards.

WhatsApp messages

Earlier this year, a report by Johnson’s ethics adviser named Lord Brownlow as being behind the donation.

It went on to claim that “the Prime Minister… confirms that he knew nothing about such payments [from Lord Brownlow] until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.”

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However, the Electoral Commission’s report now appears to cast doubt on this, saying that Johnson personally contacted Brownlow about the funding.

It says that, in November 2020, “the prime minister messaged Lord Brownlow via WhatsApp asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence. Lord Brownlow agreed to do so… .”

‘Serious failings’

“Our investigation into the Conservative Party found that the laws around the reporting and recording of donations were not followed,” said a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission.

“The party’s decisions and actions reflected serious failings in its compliance systems. As a large and well-resourced political party that employs compliance and finance experts, and that has substantial sums of money going through its accounts, the Conservative Party should have sufficiently robust systems in place to meet its legal reporting requirements.”

The spokesperson added: “For the offence of failing to accurately report the full value of the donation from Huntswood Associates on 19 October, the Commission has imposed a sanction of £16,250. For contravening the requirement to keep proper accounting records, a sanction of £1,550 has been imposed.”

Responding to the fine issued today, the Conservative Party claimed it was a “technical breach” of the law.

A spokesperson said: “We have been in constant contact with the Electoral Commission with regards to this matter and have sought their advice as to how the transaction should be reported since it was made.

“We are considering whether to appeal this decision and will make a decision within 28 working days.”

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