‘The sword of Dom-ocles hangs over Downing Street’: No10 insiders ‘fear Dominic Cummings will publish WhatsApp messages at the heart of the Government’s who-said-what Covid lockdown row
- Dominic Cummings is locked in a war of words with Downing Street over leaks
- Ex-aide is accused of being behind claims about Boris Johnson’s flat renovation
- Now, insiders have revealed fears Cummings could unleash WhatsApp texts
Downing Street insiders fear Dominic Cummings could publish WhatsApp messages that are at the hear of the government’s who-said-what row over lockdown.
Former chief adviser Cummings is locked in an explosive war of words with Boris Johnson after Downing Street accused him of a string of leaks – including claims about the PM’s £58,000 flat makeover.
Cummings reportedly left Downing Street with a ‘treasure trove’ of damaging information about the government and advisers now fear he will release tell-all WhatsApp messages if he is criticised too heavily.
The messages are said to contain information on the government’s lockdown strategy and allies of Cummings have claimed he also has audio recordings to hand.
A Whitehall official told the Sun: ‘Everyone is worried about going too hard on Dom in case he drags them in too.
‘Some very senior people are scrolling back through their phones wondering if they are in trouble.’
Downing Street insiders fear Dominc Cummings could release WhatsApp messages said to contain information on the government’s lockdown strategy
Boris Johnson faces the threat of suspension from the Commons if he is found to have failed to register a £60,000 Tory contribution to refurbishing his Downing Street flat.
The PM has already been put on notice he risks a ‘serious sanction’ after a report two years ago condemned his ‘repeated’ breaches of Parliamentary rules.
Conservative chiefs are believed to have secretly approved a £58,000 payment to the Cabinet Office in July last year to cover the works – which was on top of the £30,000 annual sum for upkeep that the taxpayer foots.
However, the government has insisted that the premier has now funded the overhaul himself. Downing Street has refused to deny reports that Mr Johnson secured a loan from a Tory donor – believed to be financier Lord Brownlow – to pay for the decor.
But experts say that should have been declared in the MPs’ register of interests within a month.
Mr Johnson has previously been berated by the Commons standards watchdog for repeatedly failing to declare financial interests.
In a report in Spring 2019 – shortly before he became PM – the cross-party committee said: ‘Should we conclude in future that Mr Johnson has committed any further breaches of the rules on registration, we will regard this as a matter which may call for more serious sanction.’
Beyond apologies, potential punishments could include suspension.
There is also speculation that if a donor footed the cost, Mr Johnson could face a significant tax bill because HMRC would consider it a benefit in kind.
Former chief adviser Cummings is locked in an explosive war of words with Boris Johnson after Downing Street accused him of a string of leaks – including claims about the PM’s £58,000 flat makeover
Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell said transparency over the murky arrangements was ‘very late’, warning that PMs need to ‘set an example’ and ‘obey the rules’.
Whitehall sources have told the Mail Mr Johnson may be forced publicly to declare exactly how the costly refurbishment was funded.
One source said further details were likely to be revealed in an updated register of ministerial interests, which could be released as early as this week.
But Mr Johnson first has to appoint a new adviser on ministerial standards – a post that has been vacant since Sir Alex Allen resigned in November in protest at the PM’s refusal to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel over bullying allegations.
The appointment was due to be announced last week but the preferred candidate is said to be ‘wobbling’ about whether to accept the post.
The ministerial register is separate to that produced by Parliament.
It would not typically be used for declaring donations to ministers – although there are signs that Downing Street might argue that is the appropriate place to list the flat arrangements.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case yesterday confirmed Mr Johnson had wanted to set up a charitable trust more than 12 months ago to pay for the flat’s refit.
But he said it was now clear that it would be illegal for a charitable trust to pay for the upkeep of private quarters.
It’s costing tens and tens of thousands… I cannot afford it: Boris’s despairing cry to Downing St aides about lavish new decor – as revealed in definitive account of THAT scandal
BY SIMON WALTERS FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Like many of the most explosive political bombshells, the Downing Street flat scandal had a long fuse.
It was fourteen months ago – back in February 2020 – that officials first became alarmed by renovations to the No 11 flat.
They had good reason not to pay too much attention to decorators who had been at work there since the New Year. A dozen or so cases of Covid had been reported in Britain, and the possibility that it could endanger the UK was starting to be taken seriously by some Downing Street officials.
It was fourteen months ago – back in February 2020 – that officials first became alarmed by renovations to the No 11 flat. Pictured: Lulu Lytle’s collection
Mr Johnson was still on a high from his election triumph in December 2019 and had had a Christmas holiday in Mustique in the Caribbean with partner Carrie Symonds – they were still to become engaged.
The couple were overjoyed to learn she was pregnant, though they had not yet shared the news with the rest of the world.
As is now well known, at this stage life-long libertarian Mr Johnson was among those who were less alarmed about the risk of a pandemic.
But he was suddenly alarmed by signs of a political problem closer to home.
They had good reason not to pay too much attention to decorators who had been at work there since the New Year. Pictured: Lulu Lytle’s collection
‘The cost is totally out of control – she’s buying gold wallpaper!’ he is said to have raged to aides.
It is not clear if this was classic Johnson hyperbole – or whether the wallpaper really is gold. In fact, the upmarket interior eco designer Lulu Lytle – whose Soane Britain company was commissioned by Miss Symonds – sells ‘Yellow Gold’ and ‘Old Gold’ wallpaper.
When aides asked him how much it was costing, he said: ‘Tens and tens of thousands – I can’t afford it.’
The Cabinet Office, which is in charge of maintaining the Downing Street estate, told him there was a £30,000-a-year publicly funded allowance for refurbishing the flat.
Mr Johnson would have to pay the rest – £58,000.
‘The cost is totally out of control – she’s buying gold wallpaper!’ he is said to have raged to aides. Pictured: Lulu Lytle’s collection
It led to friction between Miss Symonds and Helen MacNamara, Director General of Propriety and Ethics in the Cabinet Office.
Miss Symonds is said to have urged Mr Johnson to sack Miss MacNamara after she refused to sign off extra money for the flat.
Despite his £150,000-a-year salary as Prime Minister, he is said to struggle to make ends meet as a result of losing an estimated £250,000 a year from his journalistic career as well as an expensive divorce with ex-wife Marina.
By March, Mr Johnson was having to take time out from crisis meetings on the pandemic to deal the issue his advisers called ‘Wallpaper-gate’ – after the 1970s Watergate political scandal in the US that brought down President Richard Nixon.
It is not clear if this was classic Johnson hyperbole – or whether the wallpaper really is gold
In fact, the upmarket interior eco designer Lulu Lytle (designs pictured) – whose Soane Britain company was commissioned by Miss Symonds – sells ‘Yellow Gold’ and ‘Old Gold’ wallpaper
Despite his £150,000-a-year salary as Prime Minister, he is said to struggle to make ends meet as a result of losing an estimated £250,000 a year from his journalistic career as well as an expensive divorce with ex-wife Marina
How the controversy over the Downing Street flat refurb unfolded
July 2019: Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds, pictured, move into the four-bedroom flat above No11 Downing Street.
Like previous PMs, the couple choose to live there rather than the No10 flat as it is bigger.
Ms Symonds is reportedly keen to get rid of the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ left by Theresa May.
April 2020: The couple’s son Wilf is born.
July 2020: The Conservative Party pays £58,000 to the Cabinet Office for the cost of refurbishing the flat.
October 2020: Tory donor Lord Brownlow emails party chairman Ben Elliot and head of fundraising Mike Chattey, saying he has given £58,000 to cover payments ‘the party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed ‘Downing Street Trust’.
Lord Brownlow says he chairs the trust, which reportedly planned to preserve the famous street’s heritage and decor.
Another gift of £15,000 was for general party funds, discloses the email, obtained from Downing Street sources. This was duly declared to the Electoral Commission watchdog, in accordance with transparency rules.
Crucially, the email – also sent to Conservative chief executive Darren Mott – shows a second donation of £58,000 was to pay for new decor for Mr Johnson and fiancee Carrie Symonds’s flat at 11 Downing Street.
This has not yet been declared to the Electoral Commission.
The email was marked ‘Donation’ and reads: ‘Hi Mike … further to our conversation I am making a donation to the Party.
‘It includes the £15,000 you and I have agreed – plus £58,000 to cover the payments the Party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed “Downing Street Trust” – of which I have been made chairman, as you know.’
A second leaked email from Lord Brownlow in June 2020 shows the decision to set up the trust was taken by Mr Johnson as long as ten months ago.
March 6, 2021: The Daily Mail reveals that Mr Johnson wanted Tory donors to contribute to the cost of redecorating the flat, and that the party tried to launch a cover-up. No 10 insists there has been no wrongdoing.
March 20, 2021: The Electoral Commission quizzes Tory chiefs over the funding of the makeover and has asked Mr Elliot to explain whether the Conservative Party complied with laws on political donations.
April 21, 2021: The Mail publishes emails sent by Lord Brownlow to Mr Elliot.
April 22, 2021: It emerges that Whitehall’s most senior mandarin, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, is investigating how the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat was paid for.
April 23, 2021: The Cabinet Office announces that beyond basic taxpayer-funded work on the flat any wider refurbishment costs ‘have been met by the PM personally’. No 10 does not give details of how Mr Johnson paid the £58,000.
Mr Johnson’s former chief of staff Dominic Cummings says he warned the PM in 2020 he could be breaking the law if he asked Tory donors to pay for the refurbishment, calling the proposal ‘unethical, foolish and possible illegal’.
Mr Cummings claims he refused to help arrange any such payments and, as a result of him expressing his opposition to the idea, Mr Johnson stopped discussing moves with him to get donors to fund the flat refurbishment.
Mr Cummings stated: ‘The PM stopped speaking to me about this matter in 2020 as I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.
‘I refused to help him organise these payments. My knowledge about them is therefore limited.’
April 26, 2021: Mr Case tells MPs the idea of setting up a trust to fund the upkeep of Downing Street has been looked into but it could not pay for refurbishments to the Prime Minister’s flat.
April 27, 2021: Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell wades into the row saying Mr Johnson is ‘very late’ declaring the arrangements and should be ‘setting an example’.
A standards committee report from April 2019 is highlighted warning Mr Johnson that he faces a ‘serious sanction’ if he breaches declaration rules again.
They started discussing who was going to pay Miss Lytle’s bill – and how.
Tory chairman Ben Elliot, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, is more noted for his political connections than his political achievements.
Like Mr Johnson he is an Old Etonian; he is best friends with another Old Etonian Lord (Zac) Goldsmith – more of whom later – and pals with Miss Symonds.
He is also a nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall.
Unlike famous Conservative chairmen of the past such as Norman Tebbit, Mr Elliot prefers to operate behind the scenes in No10 and Tory HQ.
Which is where he began to grapple with ‘Wallpaper-gate’.
Mr Johnson’s first idea was to ask Tory donor Lord Bamford, boss of the JCB construction giant, to pay off the £58,000.
Lord Bamford and his companies have given more than £10million to the Conservatives over the years – and wife Lady Bamford’s Daylesford farm shops delivered healthy meals to No10 after Mr Johnson recovered from Covid.
The Bamford option was dropped, though it is unclear why.
By early June, it is believed the Cabinet Office had paid the entire bill, including the ‘excess’ £58,000.
But it had to be paid back.
Mr Johnson’s team came up with another wheeze: a ‘blind trust’ modelled on the White House Trust used to maintain the US President’s Office.
The official aim was to ‘preserve Downing Street for posterity’ including the State Rooms.
In fact, it seems the real aim was to recoup the £58,000.
The advantage of the ‘blind trust’ would be that the prime minister of the day would not know who had given money to the trust so there could be no conflict of interest.
The proposal was soon abandoned as impractical.
Undeterred, Mr Johnson resolved to set up a different, more open, form of Downing Street trust.
Another multi-millionaire Tory donor, Lord Brownlow, was asked by Mr Johnson to set up the new trust.
It emerged yesterday that former Labour Chancellor Lord (Alistair) Darling turned down an offer in July to lead the trust.
So Lord Brownlow took on the job.
It was around this time that Tory HQ paid £58,000 to the Cabinet Office to clear the debt.
But after being told it could fall foul of Electoral Commission rules which say party funds should be used for political campaigning, the party appears to have panicked.An extraordinary apparent attempt to disguise the payment was launched.
This newspaper has been told that in early October Mr Johnson also discussed his financial woes in No10 with Lord Goldsmith.
Miss Symonds’s appointment in January as head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation, a wildlife charity, was a welcome boost to her and Mr Johnson’s income. A leaked email obtained by the Daily Mail showed that on October 23, Lord Brownlow told Mr Elliot that he had made a £58,000 ‘donation’ to Tory HQ.
He made it clear it was to cover the same sum paid by the party to the Cabinet Office.
He added the £58,000 was to be attributed to the ‘soon-to-be-formed Downing Trust’ – headed by Lord Brownlow himself. Six months later the trust is no nearer to being established.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case said this week that it could not be used to pay to refurbish either of the two Downing Street flats at numbers 10 and 11 – either now or in the future.
Bearing in mind that was its real, albeit unstated, purpose all along, insiders say the trust will now be ‘quietly dumped.’ Meanwhile, Downing Street now says the refurbishment costs ‘have been met by the Prime Minister personally’, but has not explained how Mr Johnson paid the £58,000.
It is not clear where he got the money from – nor who he has paid it to.
Miss Lytle? The Cabinet Office? Tory HQ? Lord Brownlow? The money trail is not just murky, it is dizzying. Opposition by Mr Johnson’s former chief of staff Dominic Cummings to using donors to pay for the flat was one of the reasons of his acrimonious exit from Downing Street in December.
But this newspaper has been told that when his successor, ex-banker Dan Rosenfield joined No10 in January, he was similarly shocked.
‘He couldn’t believe anyone had allowed such a crazy arrangement to go ahead in the first place – or that so much time had been spent on trying and failing to sort out the mess,’ said a source.
Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell said yesterday: ‘Prime ministers have to set an example and should abide by the rules which are there for a good reason. He needs to concentrate on issues like Covid and the way to do that is to abide by the rules.’
In his blistering attack last week Mr Cummings said he told Mr Johnson early last year that the funding of flat makeover was ‘unethical, foolish and possibly illegal.’
Whether you think Cummings is a genius or the devil incarnate, it is hard to disagree that Mr Johnson is guilty on at least one of the three counts.
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