“I’m not entirely sure that just pressing ‘send’ between sending two messages is actually going to be any more help.” That was the feeble defence offered by Paul Scully this morning when asked about the newly revealed WhatsApps between Boris Johnson and Tory donor Lord Brownlow. This is the “missing exchange”, as named by the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser Lord Geidt, who only got more insight into what happened with the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment accidentally, thanks to the Electoral Commission investigation. The texts that were not disclosed as they should have been show not only that Johnson directly asked Brownlow for more money to be released more quickly, but also that he discussed Brownlow’s desire for a “Great Exhibition 2.0” in the very same messages.
“No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals,” Labour’s Angela Rayner said. “Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer.” The ‘Great Exhibition’ is a bit of a mystery. The government says it never went ahead with the idea, yet ‘GE2’ appears to be very similar to the ‘festival of Brexit’ a.k.a. ‘Festival UK’ a.k.a. ‘Unboxed: Creativity in the UK’, which is planned to take place this year. Either way, for the Prime Minister to talk to Brownlow about approving the refurbishment payments in the same breath as the project favoured by the donor – and for that donor then to have a meeting arranged with a relevant minister about the project – stinks. Ministers must not only refuse to accept gifts that would place them under an obligation. They must also refuse to accept such gifts when they appear to represent a quid pro quo arrangement.
While the latest developments have not drawn a line under the scandal, instead raising yet more questions for journalists to ask, Geidt has not changed his central conclusion: the adviser says Johnson did not break the ministerial code. It is baffling that Johnson is willing to risk his premiership over some gold wallpaper, but it appears that he can get away with such conduct because the processes are not robust enough to confront it properly. “This is an advanced democracy. It is not a tin pot dictatorship. We cannot allow that kind of thing to go on in this country,” Labour’s Steve Reed told Times Radio this morning. But this country’s system of checks and balances is clearly failing – and sorely in need of an overhaul. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.