Johnson admits forwarding Tory donor’s ‘great exhibition’ plan

Lord Brownlow, who originally paid for part of PM’s flat refurbishment, met culture secretary

London Editor Downing Street has confirmed that Boris Johnson sent to the culture department a proposal for a "great exhibition" from a Conservative donor who initially funded the refurbishment of the prime minister's private flat. The British prime minister referred to the proposal in a WhatsApp message in which he asked David Brownlow if a designer could send him an invoice for the work.

Lord Brownlow, who originally paid for part of the £112,000 revamp of the private Downing Street flat but was later reimbursed, met then culture secretary Oliver Dowden after the prime minister's message. Lord Brownlow is a trustee of the Royal Albert Hall, which wanted government support for a festival inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851 to showcase British culture and technological innovation.

“As is quite usual, when any suggestions such as this are put forward, it is right that it is passed on to the relevant department to take forward. And as you’re aware, Oliver Dowden met with Lord Brownlow at the Royal Albert Hall on the joint proposal,” Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said on Friday.

“It is normal practice that when an idea or proposal is put to the prime minister, it is referred to the relevant departments to take forward, and in this case the decision was taken not to take this any further.”


The spokesman said Lord Brownlow’s proposal was rejected in favour of Unboxed UK, a series of events to be held around the country throughout 2022. Mr Johnson, who eventually paid for the refurbishment himself, has claimed that he was unaware that Lord Brownlow was the sole donor to a blind trust that was set up to pay for the redecoration.


But Labour has accused the prime minister of corruption, saying that Lord Brownlow received access to ministers in return for cash. The party's shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said the fact that Lord Brownlow's proposal was not followed through was immaterial.

“Those very cosy text messages show there was a quid pro quo in operation between the prime minister and Lord Brownlow, and we need to get to the absolute bottom of this,” he told the BBC.

“The issue is not whether it happened, it is whether rich people can pay to get access to government ministers to try and influence them over how they decide to spend taxpayers’ money.”

Mr Reed said he has asked the House of Commons standards commissioner Kathryn Stone to investigate the prime minister's flat refurbishment and whether he breached conduct rules for MPs. Christopher Geidt, who is in charge of ministerial ethics, cleared Mr Johnson of misconduct but he criticised the prime minister's failure to reveal his exchange of messages with Lord Brownlow.

The Conservative Party was fined £17,800 last month after the Electoral Commission said it broke the rules by failing to declare the extent of Lord Brownlow's donations towards the flat refurbishment. Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, is currently investigating whether social gatherings in Downing Street during lockdown broke coronavirus rules.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times