Cash for access probe demanded over Boris Johnson's 'cosy texts' with Tory donor

ITV News political reporter Daniel Hewitt breaks down the latest scandal engulfing Boris Johnson's government

A fresh investigation into "cosy text messages" between Boris Johnson and a Tory donor is needed to probe "whether rich people can pay to get access" to ministers, Labour has said.

The prime minister is once again in hot water over the renovation of his Downing Street flat, which was initially funded by Lord Brownlow after Mr Johnson gave his apparent support for a “great exhibition” backed by the Tory peer.

WhatsApp messages released on Thursday showed the prime minister discussed the proposal with Lord Brownlow at the same time as requesting his help with the £112,000 revamp of his official residence.

Mr Johnson messaged the Tory peer, asking him to approve renovations to his flat, which he said was "a bit of a tip", adding he was "on the great exhibition plan".

Lord Brownlow said he would approve payments for the revamp, adding: "Thanks for thinking about GE2".

Downing Street said the proposal for a “Great Exhibition 2.0” - a festival Lord Brownlow wanted to take place to show case Britain - was not taken forward.

Lord Geidt gave a short statement on Wednesday evening Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

But Labour is furious about the message exchanges and has asked Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone to investigate potential "cash for access" to the PM.

Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said the messages "matter immensely", arguing that they show Lord Brownlow "appears to have access to the Prime Minister because he was paying for the flat renovations" at Downing Street.

He told ITV News: "It looks very much like Lord Brownlow had access to the prime minister because he was paying for the refurbishments to the tune of £100,000 to be carried out on his flat". "If that's the case its corruption pure and simple," he added.

He said Commissioner Ms Stone should investigate to see "the extent to which the prime minister is abusing his power and his office".

"There can be no more serious charge laid against the prime minister than he is promoting corruption, and that appears to be what he's doing."

Business Minister Paul Scully defended the prime minister, pointing to standards adviser Lord Geidt's conclusion following his second investigation into the issue that there was "no breach of the ministerial code".

The PM apologised to Lord Geidt after not providing the initial investigation with the text messages.

Despite expressing his "grave concern" the missing messages were not provided, Lord Geidt said they would not have impacted the conclusion of his initial investigation.

What exactly did the messages say?

In a Whatsapp message sent on November 29 2020, Mr Johnson asked Lord Brownlow (who was supposed to be heading up a charitable trust to take over the maintenance of the flat) if he would give his approval for the interior designer Lulu Lytle to begin work.

He added: “Ps am on the great exhibition plan Will revert.”

The peer said he would sort the flat “ASAP”, adding: “Thanks for thinking about GE2”.

On January 18 2021, Lord Brownlow attended the meeting with the then culture secretary Oliver Dowden and representatives of the Albert Hall to discuss the peer’s Great Exhibition 2.0 proposal.

What is the Great Exhibition 2.0?

The UK's first Great Exhibition took place in 1851 and was organised by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert.

The festival took part in Hyde Park, London and aimed to showcase Britain's creative and industrial prowess. Over 100,000 objects were displayed to more than six million visitors from across the world.

How has Boris Johnson responded to the disclosure?

On Thursday Mr Johnson was forced to issue a “humble and sincere apology” to his standards adviser, Lord Geidt, after he failed to inform him of the exchange with Lord Brownlow when he carried out an investigation into the funding of work last year.

Mr Johnson said he did not recall the exchanges and that the messages were on an old mobile phone which he no longer had access to.

Downing Street had hoped finally to draw a line under the matter after Lord Geidt said it would not have changed his conclusion that Mr Johnson did not breach the Ministerial Code, although he made clear his deep unhappiness at the way the issue had been handled.

11 Downing Street Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

The prime minister said after he learned the work – which far exceeded the official £30,000 allowance – had been paid for by the Conservative Party, including a donation by Lord Brownlow, he reimbursed the costs from his own pocket.

However Labour believes the disclosure about the Great Exhibition proposal gives them fresh ammunition to keep the controversy alive.

What is Labour's issue with Lord Brownlow and Boris Johnson's exchange?

Labour said that if Lord Brownlow had access to senior ministers because he was footing the bill for the refurbishment work it was “corruption plain and simple”.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “It appears that Lord Brownlow had access to the Prime Minister and Culture Secretary because he was paying for his luxury flat renovations."

She added it was “pretty unbelievable" that Mr Johnson didn’t know who was paying for his flat renovations.

“If so, that is corruption plain and simple. No-one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals. Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer,” she said.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner slams Boris Johnson and the fact that tax payers are funding his legal bills. Credit: PA

In a statement, a No 10 spokesman said: “All prime ministers and ministers have proposals put to them at various points and ministers also meet stakeholders regularly as part of their engagement on an array of issues.

“In line with normal practice, this idea was referred to the relevant department, considered and ultimately not taken forward by the government.

“The government is taking forward Festival UK this year, which was confirmed in 2018, re-affirmed in the 2019 manifesto and is a cultural programme of events, called ‘Unboxed’, on arts, design and technology which will span the whole of the UK.”