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
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’.
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
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.
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
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.