A watchdog today published a much-anticipated report into Boris Johnson’s infamous Downing Street flat refurbishment – but left some big unanswered questions.
Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, said the PM had “unwisely” allowed the redecoration – which cost between £58,000 and £200,000 – to go ahead without considering who would pay the bill.
While he stopped short of saying Mr Johnson broke the ministerial code, the document suggests chaos was unfolding within the walls of No10.
It was only in March, after the media picked up on the story, that the PM “settled the full amount himself”, Lord Geidt found.
Mr Johnson assumed a charitable trust would foot the bill for the extensive work, which was overseen by fiancee Carrie Symonds.
But this fell through, prompting a Tory donor and the party headquarters to cough up for the lavish redecoration, said to include £840-a-roll wallpaper, a £9,800 Baby Bear sofa and a £3,000 Lily Drum table.
Here we look at some of the most alarming things about the report, and some of the questions that have still to be answered.
The revelations from today’s reports
Boris Johnson wanted a charity to fund his private flat
Today’s report confirms Boris Johnson didn’t want “the public purse” to pay for his flat revamp.
But he did clearly want a charity to pay for it instead.
In April 2020 he took advice that a charitable Trust to fund works on No10 – including “some if not all of the costs” of refurbishing his private flat above No11 – “could be made to work”.
Only later, when legal advice came back, did “doubts” start to creep in.
He allowed a huge refurb without knowing who’d pay
While Lord Geidt ruled Mr Johnson did not break the ministerial code, his report paints a picture of chaos inside No10.
It says “under normal circumstances, a Prime Minister might reasonably be expected to be curious” about how the revamp of his own apartment was being paid for.
It adds Mr Johnson “simply accepted” that a Trust could sort out the bill “without further interrogation”.
Eventually, Boris Johnson “settled the full amount himself” on March 8 – more of this below.
It seems he didn’t ask who’d footed the bill
When the Trust idea fell through, a Tory donor and Conservative HQ each footed separate bills while they worked out what to do next.
But the PM wasn’t even aware of this until the media picked up the story in February. Only after that did he then “settled the full amount himself”.
Labour’s Angela Rayner said it was “staggering” that the PM could rack up a vast bill on his own flat without knowing how it would be paid. The deputy leader said: “The Conservatives think it’s one rule for them and another for everyone else.”
Taxpayers had to help cover the costs
Today’s report says the taxpayer-funded Cabinet Office “paid for” initial invoices for some of the refurbishment.
Government officials then recharged that bill to the Tory party in June 2020, believing a not-yet-existing Trust would eventually pay, and the PM eventually settled it all.
But the point stands that taxpayers had to pick up the cost of renovating Mr Johnson’s private flat – albeit temporarily – in the middle of a pandemic.
Tory HQ were sent a bill too
No10 Press Secretary Allegra Stratton told the media in March: ”Conservative Party funds are not being used to pay for any refurbishment of the Downing Street estate.”
But the report says clearly that the initial invoices were “recharged” back to Conservative HQ by the Cabinet Office.
That means Tory members’ money was, for a few months in any case, used to pay for the lavish revamp of their leader’s grace-and-favour pad. It seems Ms Stratton was employing a very careful use of the present tense.
On top of that, a Tory donor stepped in and paid more
On October 19, with a Trust still “months off”, Tory donor Lord Brownlow decided to settle another invoice for more of the work himself directly with the supplier.
Cabinet Office officials did not tell Boris Johnson this – and neither did Lord Brownlow, the report finds.
Today’s report claims that, despite a Tory donor paying for his upkeep, there was no conflict of interest for the Prime Minister.
That is, apparently, because Lord Brownlow “acted with altruistic and philanthropic motives”.
Boris Johnson settled the bill – but only on March 8
As the story dragged on in March, Downing Street were at pains to stress Boris Johnson had footed the entire bill for the works himself.
But today’s report makes clear that only happened after a long to-and-fro over the costs that dragged in the Cabinet Office, Tory HQ and a major donor.
And it only happened after weeks of press reports.
The unanswered questions
How many cheques did Boris Johnson have to write?
Despite being tasked to investigate the affair, Lord Geidt’s report does not make explicitly clear how many invoices there were, or how many cheques the PM eventually had to write.
It says the Cabinet Office paid for some work, which it then charged in “invoices” (plural) back to the Conservative Party.
Lord Brownlow, the Tory donor, then paid for “an invoice” separately later that year.
And the PM then “settled the full amount himself”.
But was this “full amount” paid by Boris Johnson to both the Tory party and Lord Brownlow? We assume so, but earlier in the report, it says of the Conservative HQ money: “The record shows no evidence of the Prime Minister being aware either of the existence of these invoices or how they were settled.”
The report also refers to “invoices” plus “an invoice” charged to the Tories – how many were there?
How much money did this all cost to taxpayers, the donor and the party before the PM paid them back?
There are no actual numbers attached to any of the payments described in the report.
The makeover has been reported to have cost anywhere between £58,000 and £200,000. Is is said to be inspired by designer Lulu Lytle and include £840-a-roll wallpaper, a £9,800 Baby Bear sofa and a £3,000 Lily Drum table.
Who paid what and when? Did the Cabinet Office temporarily have to foot the bill for an outlandish piece of furniture? We don’t know.
Has Boris Johnson now taken a loan to meet the cost?
One question that has dogged No10 is whether Boris Johnson took a loan in order to meet the costs himself.
Reports have swirled about the £157,372-a-year PM being skint after his divorce – leaving questions about where he’d find the cash for such a huge sum.
Today’s report does not address that question at all.
Why did No10 avoid giving the whole truth?
Press Secretary Allegra Stratton spoke to media on March 8 – the day Boris Johnson settled the bill.
Carefully phrasing her words in the present tense, she said: “Conservative Party funds are not being used to pay for any refurbishment of the Downing Street estate.”
That may have been true, but today’s report appears to suggest it would have been false if she’d said it a day earlier.
Why did No10 not just say what had happened? Was it embarrassment, or worse?
Why were officials expected to tell the PM about a Tory paying for his own flat revamp?
Today’s report finds there was a “significant failing” in the debacle over a Trust. But it finds that failing was on the part of civil servants – not the PM himself.
It says: “It is clear from the record that while a serious and genuine endeavour, the (Downing Street) Trust was not subjected to a scheme of rigorous project management by officials.
“Given the level of the Prime Minister’s expectations for the trust to deliver on the objects he had set, this was a significant failing.”
On a Tory donor footing the bill, the report adds: “The Prime Minister was ill-served when officials did become aware, albeit they were no doubt also managing their own very difficult circumstances.”
But hang on a minute – why was it civil servants’ fault that a Tory donor didn’t bother telling Boris Johnson he’d paid for his flat revamp? Or that the PM didn’t bother to ask?
Can anyone with an ‘obligation’ now avoid a conflict of interest?
One interesting finding is that there was no conflict of interest between Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party – even though it helped foot the bill for his living arrangements.
Lord Geidt wrote: “I have considered the nature of that support and am content that no conflict (or reasonably perceived conflict) arises as a result of these interests.
“In respect of the Conservative Party, because of the strong connection between them and the Prime Minister, I do not believe that such support would put the Prime Minister under any different obligation to the relationship he already has as leader of the party.”
So hang on – there can never be a conflict of interest with Boris Johnson leaning on his party to fund him… because they already have a “strong connection” with him as party leader?
Well, we don’t make the rules…