WhatsApp messages released on Thursday showed Boris Johnson discussed a proposed “Great Exhibition 2.0” with Lord Brownlow at the same time as requesting his help with the £112,000 refurbishment of his official residence in Downing Street.
The conversation led to a meeting between the Conservative peer and then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden, but the idea, as Lord Brownlow envisaged, was not progressed.
Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said Labour has asked Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone to investigate the exchange, arguing there were questions about potential “cash for access” for the Prime Minister to answer.
Mr Reed said the text messages “matter immensely”, arguing they show Lord Brownlow “appears to have access to the Prime Minister because he was paying for the flat renovations” at Downing Street.
“If that is the case, that is corruption,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“And what we’re seeing here is a case of, potentially, cash for access where Lord Brownlow was given access to ministers to try and influence them over decisions of spending taxpayers’ money. That is why this matters so immensely.
“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.”
Asked why the messages are problematic given the Great Exhibition was not given the go-ahead, Mr Reed replied: “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.”
But business minister Paul Scully said Mr Johnson had engaged in “appropriate communication” with Lord Brownlow – who was supposed to be heading up a charitable trust to take over the maintenance of the No. 11 flat – and that “nothing untoward” occurred.
In a WhatsApp message sent on November 29, 2020, Conservative Party leader Mr Johnson asked Lord Brownlow if he would give his approval for interior designer Lulu Lytle to begin work.
He added: “Ps am on the great exhibition plan Will revert.”
The peer said he would sort the flat “ASAP”, adding: “Thanks for thinking about GE2”.
On January 18, 2021, Lord Brownlow attended a meeting with Mr Dowden and representatives of the Albert Hall to discuss the peer’s Great Exhibition 2.0 proposal.
Downing Street has said the bid was not taken forward, although the Government is going ahead with Festival UK, which was first announced in 2018.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said the Tory peer’s suggestion was “dealt with in the same way” as a member of the public’s would have been “in that a department will look at it and take a view on it”.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has written to Lord Geidt to raise “serious concerns and questions” about his decision not to revise the conclusion of his probe into the flat refurbishment in the light of the WhatsApp messages emerging.