PM has 'full confidence' in Jenrick over 'cash for favours' row as Starmer calls for investigation

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt

Boris Johnson is again backing Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick over a "cash for favours" row, saying he has "full confidence" in the minister amid calls from Labour for an "inquiry into his behaviour".

Mr Jenrick is under increasing pressure after documents revealed the extent of contact between himself and multi-millionaire Tory donor Richard Desmond before the Cabinet minister signed off on the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme in east London.

It revealed he was “insistent” the controversial development scheme was pushed through before a new tax levy came into force which would cost the developer millions of pounds.

The cache of letters and texts released on Wednesday evening showed "chummy" correspondence between Mr Jenrick and former Daily Express owner Mr Desmond, in which the property developer urged the minister to approve a development scheme so that “Marxists” did not get “doe for nothing”.

Mr Jenrick overruled planning inspectors to sign off the development application but later had to quash his own approval, conceding that the decision was “unlawful” due to “apparent bias”.

Former Tory councillor Andrew Wood, who quit the party in February over what he described as Mr Jenrick's "shocking" decision, said it was now time for the minister to leave the Cabinet.

When asked by ITV News whether Mr Jenrick should resign, Cllr Wood said: "Yes he should, for two reasons; number one because of the poor judgement he showed last year in terms of making the decision and if he can’t deal with a, in his terms a relatively small planning application, how can he make those really big decisions."

Despite the ongoing controversy, the prime minister's spokesman said Mr Johnson "considers the matter closed".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer emphatically disagreed: "The prime minister needs to stop saying the matter's closed. It obviously is not closed."

He said: "Robert Jenrick needs to come clean, full disclosure of all the documents, all the relevant bits of paper, answer all the questions.

"I think there needs to be a Cabinet Office inquiry into his behaviour - this has turned into a judgement call on the prime minister."

Number 10 believes Mr Jenrick has already "published the relevant documentation" and it currently does not look like Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill will be probing the matter.

In a letter to Labour Sir Mark said Mr Jenrick had “set out a full and factual account” of his actions, adding: “In light of this account, the Prime Minister considers that the matter is closed.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock offered his support to Mr Jenrick, explaining how "the Cabinet Secretary has looked at the correspondence - its all been published - and the Cabinet Secretary has decided that there isn’t any need for any further investigation and that’s why the prime minster regards this matter as closed".

Labour wants Mr Jenrick to explain to MPs his links with Mr Desmond after the "breathtaking documents" were released.

Shadow communities Steve Reed said they "raise far more questions" about the controversy, "than they answer".

"Whether the prime minister likes it or not, this matter is far from closed,” he said.

“An explosive and unprecedented case of a Secretary of State quashing his own unlawful, biased decision to approve a ‘cash-for-favours’ planning decision that saved a Conservative donor over £150 million demands the utmost transparency.

“That is why the Secretary of State must come back to the House of Commons to explain himself and why he must publish all remaining evidence.

"The public need to know there is not one rule for the Conservatives and their wealthy friends, and another rule for everyone else."

Downing Street has since distanced itself from the row, saying “no one in Number 10 has discussed this appeal with Mr Desmond or the applicants".

The spokesman was unable to say whether anyone in No 10 had discussed the development more generally with Mr Jenrick.

After Downing Street restated its backing for Mr Jenrick, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “Here we go again the untouchables – the old boys network covering for each other. Disgusting!

"This isn’t a government it’s a farce. Not a spot of integrity amongst them.”

Critics say Mr Jenrick broke the ministerial code in a "cash for favours" row when, after sitting next to media mogul Mr Desmond at a Tory fundraising event and being shown about “three or four minutes” of promotional video about the project, he overruled a planning inspector to approve it.

Robert Jenrick (R) approved an application by Tory donor Richard Desmond (L) to build the Westferry Printworks development scheme in east London. Credit: PA

Two weeks after the Cabinet minister stepped in to approve the housing scheme, Electoral Commission records show that Mr Desmond personally gave £12,000 to the Conservatives.

Mr Jenrick originally gave the development the go-ahead in January 2020, overruling both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector.

He subsequently reversed the ruling following legal action by the council, admitting that what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

He has labelled allegations against him as "wild accusations" and "baseless innuendo".

Mr Jenrick added: “Transparency matters, openness matters and settling this matter matters because I certainly don’t want to be the subject of the innuendo and the false accusations that the Opposition are choosing to peddle.”

Sir Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee, said he thought Mr Jenrick would survive the calls for him to resign.

The senior Tory said: “Clearly there has been a little bit of a mistake and the decision has had to be rescinded but there is no sign of actual maladministration.”