British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologized after a government ethics investigator criticized the U.K. leader and his staff for failing to disclose messages he exchanged with a donor about financing the redecoration of his official residence.
Christopher Geidt, the independent adviser on minister’s interests, wasn’t informed of the messages last spring when he investigated the so-called “cash for curtains” scandal. They came to light in early December as part of a separate inquiry by election regulators.
While Geidt said the new disclosure didn’t change his finding that Johnson had not violated the ministerial code, he expressed “grave concern” that the information wasn’t turned over to him earlier. Geidt’s comments were published Thursday when Johnson’s office released letters he exchanged with the adviser.
“This present episode provides evidence of insufficient care for the role of your independent adviser,” Geidt wrote to Johnson on Dec. 17.
“Beyond that, however, I believe a far greater threat to public confidence attaches to the exchanges unrecalled, the messages undisclosed, the data unconsidered and the subsequent misjudgments about the impact of the messages which I have had to weigh in this initial advice.”
Messages weren’t disclosed before inquiry concluded
In response, Johnson acknowledged that WhatsApp messages he exchanged with Conservative Party fundraiser David Brownlow weren’t disclosed to Geidt until after the Electoral Commission concluded its inquiry on Dec. 9.
Johnson said this was due to security issues and an effort not to interfere with the Electoral Commission’s work, though he apologized for not providing a “fuller explanation” at the time of Geidt’s initial investigation.
“I am sorry that the Office of Independent Adviser has been put in this position and can only repeat the humble and sincere apology I gave when we discussed this matter earlier today,” Johnson wrote on Dec. 21.
Geidt, whom Johnson appointed as independent adviser on ministerial standards, had previously criticized the prime minister for “unwisely” failing to determine the source of funding for the pricey renovations.
The project cost as much as 200,000 pounds (more than $340,000 Cdn), according to news reports.
Grants available to PMs
British prime ministers receive a government grant of up to 20,000 pounds (more than $34,000 Cdn) to refurbish the official residence when they move in.
Johnson proposed setting up a charitable foundation to cover the additional costs, but that was ruled inappropriate and Brownlow stepped in to pay the bills, Geidt said in his initial report. Johnson later reimbursed the money.
The project has dogged Johnson for months, amid criticism from political opponents that he has been less than transparent about the financial arrangements and was slow to file the required disclosures about Brownlow’s involvement.
The allegations provided fodder for pointed questions in Parliament and from the media, after newspapers suggested that the bills skyrocketed as the prime minister’s fiancée, now his wife, hired a celebrity interior designer and splashed out on items such as gold wallpaper and a sofa that sells for 15,000 pounds (more than $25,000 Cdn).