The government’s new standards adviser today slammed ‘significant failings’ over the PM’s £90,000 No11 flat refurbishment – but cleared him of breaking the ministerial code.
Lord Geidt criticised the handling of a planned trust to fund the overhaul of the grace and favour residence where Boris Johnson lives with fiancee Carrie and their son Wilf, saying it was not subject to ‘rigorous project management by officials’.
He also painted a picture of Mr Johnson not being engaged with what was happening on the project, suggesting he had little clue how it was being funded and was ‘unwise’ not to keep closer control.
In a long-awaited report to accompany the latest register of interests, the peer said the civil service should have been across the detail of the plans.
‘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,’ Lord Geidt wrote.
‘Instead, the Prime Minister – unwisely, in my view – allowed the refurbishment of the apartment at No 11 Downing Street to proceed without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded.’
However, the adviser on ministerial interests said the trust was a ‘genuine endeavour’.
Ordering a note to be added to the latest register, he said that the financial arrangements ‘present no actual or perceived conflict’.
‘I consider them to be consistent with the provisions of the Ministerial Code,’ he added.
The relatively mild findings will be a relief to Mr Johnson and his aides, after the long-running saga over the lavish refurb. However, separate probes by the Electoral Commission and standards commissioner are ongoing.
And Mr Johnson has ended up personally footing a large bill, amid persistent – but hotly disputed – rumours about his finances being under strain.
No10 stressed that Mr Johnson has now paid for the No11 works himself beyond the £30,000 annual allowance for upkeep from the taxpayer and had always tried to ‘minimise the costs’ for the public.
A Downing Street spokesman said: ‘Lord Geidt’s independent report shows the Prime Minister acted in accordance with the Ministerial Code at all times.
‘The Prime Minister has made a declaration in his List of Ministerial Interests, as advised by Lord Geidt.
‘Cabinet Office officials were engaged and informed throughout and official advice was followed.
‘Other than works funded through the annual allowance, the costs of the wider refurbishment of the flat are not being financed by taxpayers and have been settled by the Prime Minister personally.’
But Labour’s Angela Rayner said: ‘The Conservatives think it’s one rule for them and another for everyone else.
The PM and Carrie Symonds face the prospect of handing over emails and phone messages in a separate investigation by the Electoral Commission
The government’s new standards adviser today slammed ‘significant failings’ over the No11 flat refurbishment – but cleared Boris Johnson (pictured) of breaking the ministerial code
Pictured: A design by Lulu Lytle, who is believed to have carried out the refurbishment
Lord Christopher Geidt, a former aide to the Queen, was installed as the new adviser on ministerial interests a month ago
New adviser was Queen’s right-hand man for a decade
The PM’s new adviser on ministerial interests spent 10 years as the Queen’s right hand man.
Lord Geidt served as the monarch’s Private Secretary until 2017 – a role that requires the utmost discretion.
He was widely regarded as one of her most invaluable aides.
On stepping down from the prestigious post, he was elevated to the Lords in a sign of the high esteem in which he was held.
He sits as a cross-bencher, meaning he does not align with any particular political party.
Alongside his part-time role with No10, Lord Geidt is Chairman of King’s College London – where he once studied – and chairman for International Relations and Corporate Responsibility at Schroders plc.
‘Throughout this pandemic, the Government has shown utter disregard for taxpayers’ money, using the public purse as a personal cashpoint.
‘The Government has at long last admitted that a Tory donor has been funding the Prime Minister’s private life. We know this isn’t the only aspect of the Prime Minister’s lifestyle that may be being funded by Tory donors – No 10 must now come clean about how far this goes.’
The row was sparked by a string of revelations in the Mail over the £58,000 cost overrun being originally paid by the Conservative Party before being covered by Tory donor Lord Brownlow.
PMs have an annual allowance for improvements to their residence, and sources told MailOnline that the £30,000 available for 2020-21 was the only public funding used for the refurb.
Lord Geidt – former private secretary to the Queen – was appointed at the end of last month and immediately handed the task of ‘ascertaining the facts’ surrounding the renovation of the 11 Downing Street flat and advising Mr Johnson ‘on any further registration of interests that may be needed’.
The post had been vacant since Sir Alex Allan resigned in November in response to Mr Johnson standing by Priti Patel, despite an investigation finding the Home Secretary’s conduct ‘amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying’.
Lord Geidt found the PM knew ‘nothing about’ payments for the refurbishment work until reports in the media surfaced.
He said: ‘I have also spoken … to the Prime Minister who confirms that he knew nothing about such payments (made by Tory donor Lord Brownlow) until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.
‘At that point, the Prime Minister immediately sought the necessary advice about his interests and, as a consequence, settled the full amount himself on March 8 2021.’
The peer said discussions about a Downing Street Trust being set up to pay for the work had been held, but legal advice received in June 2020 ‘raised doubts’ about whether such a body ‘would be capable of dealing with costs associated with the private residences’.
‘By the late autumn of 2020, it was apparent that a trust capable of meeting the original objects (including the costs of refurbishing the No 11 Downing Street residence) was still likely to be many months off,’ the adviser said.
‘On October 20 2020, Lord Brownlow confirmed to Cabinet Office officials, including by subsequently ensuring that the minutes properly recorded the fact, that he had the day before settled an invoice for the No 11 Downing Street residence refurbishment works directly with the supplier.
‘Cabinet Office officials appear not to have acted on this information to the extent of informing the Prime Minister, let alone offering him advice on his private interests.
‘Moreover, despite the Prime Minister and Lord Brownlow having some limited contact during the following three months, the record shows no evidence that the Prime Minister had been informed by Lord Brownlow that he had personally settled the total costs.’
The 10-page report concluded there was ‘no conflict’ even though an interest did arise for Mr Johnson.
‘In respect of the interests arising as a result of these events, I advise that an interest did arise in his capacity as a Minister of the Crown,’ he said.
‘This is as a result of the support provided by Conservative campaign headquarters and by Lord Brownlow to the Prime Minister.
‘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.
‘These interests have been properly declared to me by the Prime Minister.’
He said Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had, as part of the review, acknowledged the ‘shortcomings relating to project management and the failure to advise the Prime Minister of the situation in October 2020’ in respect to the upgrade works on the No 11 flat.
The Electoral Commission has launched a separate probe into whether the Conservative Party might have broken electoral law over its part in the funding arrangements.
Labour MPs have also asked the parliamentary commissioner for standards to look into the issues raised and whether any rules been broken.
Mr Johnson has previously been warned by the Commons standards committee for failing to declare interests.
In 2019, after he made public apologies, he was told he would face a more ‘serious sanction’ if he breached the rules again. That could potentially mean a recommendation of suspension, although it would need to be approved by the whole House.
The new list of ministerial interests refers to the No11 funding row, but says the interests are not ‘current’
Matt Hancock gets a slap on the wrist from watchdog for ‘minor’ breach of the Ministerial Code by failing to declare he owned shares in a family firm which won NHS contracts while he was Health Secretary
The Health Secretary was accused of cronyism after it he revealed in March he had a 20 per cent stake in Topwood Ltd, which is run by his sister and brother-in-law.
The company, which specialises in the secure storage, shredding and scanning of documents, was awarded £300,000 of business by NHS Wales this year.
The new ministerial standards watchdog Lord Geidt today said that his failure to mention the shareholding before it won an NHS deal was a ‘minor’ breach of the Ministerial Code, but ruled that no action should be taken.
The company was handed a ‘framework agreement’ with NHS Shared Business Services Ltd (SBS), which outsources NHS back-office work, in February 2019, which allowed it to win the Welsh contract this year.
But Mr Hancock became Health Secretary in July 2018 after Jeremy Hunt replaced Mr Johnson as Foreign Secretary, following the latter’s resignation.
Lord Geidt said today that ‘it is reasonable to assume that Mr Hancock’s sister and brother-in-law, the owners of Topwood Ltd, would have been well aware of his appointment as Secretary of State at the time of their company securing this contract with NHS SBS.’
The Health Secretary was accused of cronyism after it he revealed in March he had a 15 per cent state in Topwood Ltd, which is run by his sister and brother-in-law.
After the situation was highlighted by the Health Service Journal earlier this year, sources insisted Mr Hancock had discussed the issue with the Department for Heath and Social Care permanent secretary before accepting the shares, and was told that any conflicts could be handled if they arise.
The Health Secretary is said to have no ‘active participation’ in the running of the company, and was not involved in awarding contracts.
Lord Geidt said today: ‘Given that Topwood Ltd had secured the award of a framework contract with NHS SBS, a company in which the legal personality of the Secretary of State is a shareholder, I believe there to be a danger that a reasonable person might perceive this link to represent a conflict of interest, and that it should have been declared at the time.
‘In reaching this determination, I accept that the scale of NHS operations in England (for which the Secretary of State is responsible) are broad and that the activity of NHS SBS may have been very far from the Secretary of State’s main focus.
‘I assess this earlier failure to declare the interest was as a result of his lack of knowledge and in no way deliberate, and therefore, in technical terms, a minor breach of the Ministerial Code.
‘I have advised the Prime Minister accordingly. In coming to this finding, I recognise that Mr Hancock has acted with integrity throughout and that this event should in no way impugn his good character or ministerial record.’
Revealed: The letter Carrie Symonds wanted to send to The Times objecting to story about Dilyn the dog – but Boris blocked it after saying: ‘I can’t sign this – it’s nonsense’
He objected on the basis that the proposed complaint, drawn up at the start of the Covid crisis, was ‘a nonsense’.
A copy of the draft letter was leaked to the Daily Mail’s Simon Walters after Dominic Cummings told MPs on Wednesday that Ms Symonds went ‘completely crackers’ over a report claiming the couple hated Dilyn.
Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Mr Cummings said Ms Symonds’ reaction had diverted the Prime Minister’s attention at a crucial stage ahead of the first lockdown.
He was also dealing with a demand by Donald Trump for Britain to back bombing raids in the Middle East.
The leaked letter shows Ms Symonds wanted Mr Johnson to support her formal protest that Jack Russell cross Dilyn was not ‘chronically ill’ and there were no plans to ‘callously rehome’ him.
Boris Johnson refused to back fiancee Carrie Symonds ‘ complaint to The Times after it claimed the couple wanted to get rid of their pet dog Dilyn (pictured together)
The draft letter, in both their names, was prepared after Ms Symonds was enraged by an article in The Times on March 11 last year
The draft letter, in both their names, was prepared after Ms Symonds was enraged by an article in The Times on March 11 last year.
It was addressed to The Times and in it, the couple threatened to take their complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
The article said Dilyn could be put up for adoption because the couple were fed up with trying to house train the ‘sickly animal’.
Ms Symonds denounced the story as ‘total crap’ on social media. And when The Times refused to print an apology, she urged Mr Johnson to write to it.
But after reportedly telling Ms Symonds he would send the letter, Mr Johnson changed his mind after Mr Cummings intervened, according to well-placed sources.
‘The PM went along with it initially because Carrie was very cross,’ said an insider. ‘It was none of Dom’s business but he hated Carrie and went berserk.
He told the PM it was a waste of time – and the PM agreed. He sympathised with Carrie’s feelings but said, ‘I can’t sign this – it’s a nonsense’.’
Mr Johnson’s decision to not complain came after Mr Cummings was told he could not attend a Covid meeting because he was dealing with the Dilyn row.
Eight months later, Mr Cummings was ousted from his No10 post when he lost a power struggle with Ms Symonds.
In his evidence on Wednesday, Mr Cummings said: ‘The Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story. Part of the building was saying ‘Are we going to bomb Iraq?’
‘Part of the building was arguing whether or not we’re going to do or not do quarantine.
‘The Prime Minister has got his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.’
He also accused Ms Symonds of intervening in a key No10 appointment in a way that was ‘not only completely unethical but also clearly illegal’.
According to a well-placed No10 source, there was another reason Mr Johnson did not complain about the report. ‘It was essentially true,’ said the source.
Another Cummings ally leaves No10
Another of Dominic Cummings’ allies is leaving Downing Street in the wake of the Vote Leave purge, it emerged today.
Ben Warner, who worked on the Brexit campaign, has been one of the last aides left with strong connections to the former No10 chief.
However, colleagues have been asked to sign a leaving card for the data guru by today, according to The Times.
Boris Johnson has looked to be clearing out the Vote Leave faction in the wake of the bitter power struggle that sparked Mr Cummings’ departure
But No10 sources insisted Mr Warner’s exit is amicable and has been planned for ‘months’.
Mr Warner helped run the Conservatives’ general election campaign in December 2019, and is reputed to have predicted the huge 80 majority to within one seat.
‘At one stage there was talk of getting rid of Dilyn. Carrie loves the dog but Boris has never been a fan. It drove him round the bend.’
Downing Street declined to comment last night.
Mr Cummings claimed the Prime Minister was ‘unfit for the job’ and could not lead Britain out of the pandemic.
He said the Health Secretary ‘should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things, including lying’.
He alleged Mr Hancock had lied to the PM over the disastrous policy of not testing older people for Covid before they were discharged from hospital into care homes.
The former No10 aide outlined a series of failings by him and the ‘smoking ruin’ Department for Health, including lying in January last year that pandemic preparations were brilliant when they were ‘completely hollow’.
Mr Cummings alleged Mr Hancock lied about testing hospital patients for coronavirus before they were sent back into care homes, in a suggestion that thousands died because of his dishonesty.
He also claimed that the Health Secretary lied about people getting the treatment they needed during the first peak last March and April – adding that ‘many people were left to die in horrific circumstances’.
Mr Cummings then accused Mr Hancock of ‘appalling’ behaviour towards chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, saying: ‘He used the whole ‘we’re following the science’ as a way so that he could always say, ‘well if things go wrong, we’ll blame the scientists and it’s not my fault’.’
Downing Street has not denied that Mr Johnson considered sacking the Health Secretary in April last year but insisted the Prime Minister has confidence in him now. Mr Hancock disputes the allegations.
Mr Cummings suggested that Mr Johnson chose not to fire the Health Secretary at that point because he was allegedly told ‘you should keep him there because he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along’.
Mr Cummings told the joint health and science committee: ‘One thing I can say completely honestly is that I said repeatedly from February/March that if we don’t fire the Secretary of State and get testing into somebody else’s hands, we’re going to kill people and it’s going to be a catastrophe.’
On the claim that Mr Hancock lied, Mr Cummings said: ‘There are numerous examples. In the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment they required.
‘He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak. We were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.’
A picture posted on Twitter by Mr Cummings shows a whiteboard in Downing Street in March last year, with a blue bell curve, seemingly representing Covid cases, skyrocketing well above a red line representing ‘NHS capacity’, predicting there would be ‘100,000+ people dying in corridors’ if no action was taken. Another graph, titled ‘Current plan’, shows a more spread out curve, which still exceeded the health service’s ability to cope, implying that the measures in place at that time were insufficient to stop the health service being overwhelmed. A third chart, named the ‘Actual plan’, shows the rate at which coronavirus spreads being suppressed, with the blue line annotated ‘lockdown to (lower) rate = delay’. Under a section titled ‘public health’ is written ‘3 weeks min – no non-essential movement’
Mr Johnson visiting Colchester hospital yesterday as the fallout from the Cummings appearance continued
Mr Hancock had also blamed NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens and Chancellor Rishi Sunak for PPE problems.
Mr Cummings said he asked the cabinet secretary to investigate, who came back and said ‘it is completely untrue, I have lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings’.
The former aide said Mr Hancock’s public promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April was ‘incredibly stupid’ because it was already an internal goal.
‘In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’.
‘It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.’
On a visit to Colchester hospital yesterday, Mr Johnson said the government faced an ‘incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we have taken lightly’ and ‘at every stage we have been governed by a determination to protect life’.
Challenged whether the government’s failures had cost tens of thousands of lives as Mr Cummings claims, he said: ‘No I don’t think so. But, of course, this has been an incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we’ve taken lightly.’
He said the situation in care homes – where more than 40,000 deaths were linked to Covid – was ‘tragic’, but added: ‘We did everything we could to protect the NHS and to protect care homes as well.’
He said: ‘I think it’s important for us to focus on what really matters to the people of this country.
‘I think, if I may say so, that some of the commentary I have heard doesn’t bear any relation to reality.
‘What people want us to get on with is delivering the road map and trying – cautiously – to take our country forward through what has been one of the most difficult periods that I think anybody can remember.’
Summoned to answer an urgent question in the House yesterday morning, Mr Hancock said: ‘These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.
‘I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout.’
Mr Hancock also dismissed Mr Cummings’ criticism of his testing target, saying it was ‘how you get stuff done in government’.
‘I am proud of everyone in my department,’ he said.
In a brutal swipe at the ex-No10 chief, who was ousted from Downing Street in November, he said people can see that over the past six months ‘governing has become a little easier and we have been able to deliver’.
Tory MPs rallied round Mr Hancock in the chamber, with William Wragg slamming the ‘irony’ of criticism from Mr Cummings, and Peter Bone dismissing him as an ‘unelected Spad who broke Covid regulations’. Mr Bone said the premier’s mistake was that he ‘didn’t fire Dominic Cummings early enough’.
Red Wall MP Dehenna Davison also made her feelings clear as she asked a question by video link with a ‘Barnard Castle eye test’ chart in the background.
Government sources have called the onslaught from Mr Cummings a ‘character assassination’ that was ‘not backed by evidence’.
Senior Tories told MailOnline that the former No10 chief was engaged in epic ‘score settling’ and had a ‘selective memory’. ‘He should really have words with whoever was in charge last year,’ one said wryly.