Downing Street spends £2.6m on refurbs for White House-style press briefings

Boris Johnson at a press briefing Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Downing Street has spent more than £2.6 million on renovations in order to hold White House-style press briefings.

The cost of the refurbishments for the televised question and answer sessions with journalists was revealed as Boris Johnson faces pressure over the funding of a separate revamp to his official residence.

Labour questioned the Prime Minister’s priorities for shelling out millions on “vanity projects” while “picking the pockets” of NHS workers, amid growing anger at the Government proposing a pay rise for health staff of just 1%.

Allegra Stratton was due to front the new White-House style briefings. Credit: Aaron Chown/PA

An extensive overhaul within No 9 Downing Street began last year as the Government announced the plans to hold the televised briefings, with their launch long delayed during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, the Cabinet Office on Friday issued a breakdown of the costs totalling £2,607,767.67, largely excluding VAT.

The department said that funds have been spent to allow daily broadcasting by various news organisations within the Grade I listed building.

“This will necessarily require one-off capital works, including audio-visual equipment, internet infrastructure, electrical works and lighting,” the response said.

“This spending is in the public interest as the new broadcasting of lobby briefings will increase public accountability and transparency about the work of this Government now and in the future.

“Such spending on maintenance and technical facilities reflects that 9 Downing Street (the Privy Council Office) is a Grade I listed building.”

Carrie Symonds’ apparent dislike of Theresa May’s John Lewis decor has turned into a major scandal for the PM Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

Opposition MPs seized on the figure to criticise the Government’s recommendation of a 1% pay rise for NHS workers despite the unprecedented pressure they suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

As nurses considered taking industrial action, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “It would take around 100 years for a newly qualified nurse to get paid this kind of money.

“It sums up Boris Johnson’s warped priorities that he can find millions for vanity projects, while picking the pockets of NHS workers.”

The televised briefings were said to be the brainchild of Mr Johnson’s former adviser Lee Cain.

But he reportedly disagreed with the Prime Minister’s choice of former journalist Allegra Stratton as press secretary to lead the briefings as a Government spokeswoman.

Lee Cain Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

Mr Cain later left Downing Street, along with former Vote Leave colleague Dominic Cummings, as a behind-the-scenes power struggle within No 10 spilled out into the open.

An advert said the salary for the press secretary role would be based on experience, but reports suggested the taxpayer-funded post would pay around £100,000 a year.

The FoI response, which was delayed by several weeks as officials decided whether the disclosure was in the public interest, included £1,848,695.12 for the “main works”.

Other costs included £198,023.75 on “long lead items”, and £33,394.63 on broadband equipment.

The launch of the televised briefings had been anticipated as early as the autumn, but in January No 10 said they were being delayed as ministers planned to hold regular press conferences during the lockdown.

Lobby correspondents, the political reporters based in Parliament, currently have daily briefings with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, or his deputy. Both are civil servants.

But under proposals set out in July, an afternoon session will be filmed at 9 Downing Street and will be led by Ms Stratton.

As a politically-appointed special adviser, rather than an impartial civil servant, she will be able to take aim at opponents as well as defend the Government’s actions.

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