Labour’s Steve Reed believes that the Prime Minister “should have sacked” Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick over the Westferry ‘cash-for-favours’ planning scandal, LabourList can reveal.
In an exclusive interview with LabourList, the Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary described Jenrick as an “absolute disaster” in his ministerial role, with a “massive sense of privilege and entitlement”.
Jenrick granted planning permission for the £1bn development of the Westferry Printworks site in east London, two weeks before applicant Richard Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.
The Housing Secretary later overturned his own decision after admitting “apparent bias”. It has since been confirmed that Jenrick had made the decision swiftly to help the developer avoid a new charge.
Reed told LabourList that Jenrick “took instructions” from Desmond – who he called a “porn baron” – and “bent over backwards” to help the billionaire avoid a community infrastructure levy.
“He thinks the rules do not apply to him. He thinks he can bend the rules to advantage himself and the billionaire donors who support the Conservative Party,” Reed said of his opposite, Jenrick.
“They like to talk about their levelling up agenda, but they’re two-tier Tories. It’s one rule for them and their billionaire buddies and another rule for everyone else.”
Reed said Jenrick broke the code of conduct for ministers, which was “covered up” by Boris Johnson, “may have” committed misconduct in public office, and has “destroyed trust in the planing system”.
“We are looking at a new era of Tory sleaze,” Reed concluded, accusing the Tories of thinking that “taxes are for the little people and they can game the whole system to their advantage”.
Reed said there are not just concerns over Westferry, but also Jenrick’s intervention in a development at Sandown racecourse, his Westminster townhouse extension and reports of “major contracts going to companies led by Tory donors”.
Asked whether Jenrick broke the rules and possibly the law in exchange for merely a £12,000 donation, the shadow cabinet member replied: “They’re trying to build a relationship with him so that he will donate more money in the future.
“I don’t think the £12,000 was the end of this. I think Jenrick was effectively grooming Desmond to make more generous donations in the future. I doubt very much this was a one-off.”
Reed said the relationship between the Conservatives and Desmond stems from Johnson. “They’re clearly very, very close,” he noted, adding: “There is something the Prime Minister is trying to hide.”
Johnson has refused to disclose how many meetings he has had with Desmond since taking office, and refused to order an investigation into the scandal. The Prime Minister has repeatedly said the “matter is closed”.
Labour pressured the government to release documents relating to Jenrick’s decision last week, but the opposition party says there are “WhatsApps, memos and minutes” yet to be revealed.
“This matter is not closed,” Reed told LabourList. “This matter will go on until the Prime Minister either chooses to come clean or is forced to come clean about what they’ve really been up to.”
Steve Reed also talked about the first local lockdown taking place in Leicester, where there has been a surge in Covid-19 cases. Non-essential shops and schools in the area have been ordered to close again.
Labour’s communities spokesperson said it was a “disaster waiting to happen” and proof of “neglect” by the government, which has consistently “tried to control everything from the centre”.
Noting that councils have not been given access to crucial data on local infection rates, Reed said: “It appears that the government knew 11 days ago that the infection rate was getting out of control in Leicester, but they didn’t tell the council.”
He added: “We’re coming out of the lockdown later than we should have done, with a high level of risk than we should have done, and without the ability to manage local outbreaks.”
Reed told LabourList that the government’s ‘Clipper’ system for the supply and distribution of personal protective equipment – managed by a retail logistics and supply chain firm – “still isn’t working”.
On the reasons for government failures, the Labour frontbencher put it down to a “mixture of incompetence and control freakery” and said “the cabinet is not comprised of the best talents available in the Conservative Party”.
Slamming the quality of cabinet members, he asserted: “Those people are there because they don’t challenge Boris Johnson in any way. He’s got a group of ‘yes’ people around him.”
He said there was a “cultural problem with this Conservative government” in its lack of cooperation with councils, and remarked that it was the “definition of stupidity not to learn from your mistakes”, adding: “This will happen again.”
Although the Prime Minister has claimed that austerity would “not be part of our approach” in government, Reed said austerity “never went away” and was currently being imposed on local government.
“The government is forcing councils to make cuts of up to 20% in year, in the middle of a global pandemic, just as we slide into what could be the worst recession in 300 years,” Reed declared.
“Boris Johnson has the front to stand up there and say there will not be a return to austerity when they are forcing councils right now to plan austerity budgets to hit in a few months’ time.
“He is being dishonest about the reality of the situation. Frontline services will be cut, frontline staff will lose their jobs because the government is imposing austerity. It’s clear as day.”
But he rejected the debt cancellation campaign backed by a number of Labour mayors, council leaders and MPs, saying it would cost around £90bn and resources should be sent “where need is greatest, not where debt is greatest”.
“Let’s not just reward badly-run Conservative councils that are speculating with public funds, let’s send money to where people really need it to move on where their lives and access opportunity.”