A member of Boris Johnson’s government and a “cash for favors” dispute he’s embroiled in has become the latest political headache for the premier after a difficult few months battling the coronavirus pandemic.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, under fire since it emerged that he approved a planning development from businessman Richard Desmond who later donated money to the Conservative Party, released documents Wednesday showing he’d exchanged text messages with Desmond prior to the decision.
The UK’s main opposition Labour Party described the events as a “cash for favors” scandal. Jenrick told the House of Commons on Wednesday any allegations that his view on the construction project could have been swayed by meeting Desmond were “wrong” and “outrageous,” and said he knew “nothing” of the donation.
The closeness of Jenrick’s contact with Desmond adds to the controversy around the episode, which has seen calls for his resignation and risks further damaging the popularity of Johnson’s Conservative Party. Despite winning a strong majority six months ago, the Tories’ poll standing has declined as the the U.K. has recorded one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the world.
Questions over Jenrick’s actions follow the backlash over Johnson’s key aide Dominic Cummings, who was the focus of a media frenzy and became a national talking point after allegedly breaking lockdown rules, as though there’s one rule for the governing elite and another for the masses.
Labour accused Jenrick of rushing through approval of Desmond’s project — a 500-apartment, 44-storey development at Westferry Printworks, a former printing plant in east London — to help the businessman avoid paying a new community infrastructure levy that was to be imminently introduced. The charge would have cost Desmond at least 30 million pounds ($37 million).
A redacted email from a civil servant included in the documents published on Wednesday said Jenrick had been “insistent” on issuing a decision quickly, noting the upcoming tax change.
Desmond made a 12,000 pounds donation to the Conservative Party two weeks after Jenrick issued the decision. Jenrick later reversed the decision after the local council sought a judicial review, conceding he had acted unlawfully.
“He rushed through the decision specifically to help the developer,” Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government Steve Reed said in a statement. “The public must be reassured that there is not one rule for the Conservatives and their wealthy donors and another rule for everyone else.”
In a sign of Johnson wanting to move on from the Jenrick affair, the U.K.’s top civil servant Mark Sedwill sent Reed a letter on Wednesday stating that the prime minister considers the matter closed.
Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi defended Jenrick’s actions.
“There is no smoking gun here,” he told the BBC. “The intention was to get more housing built quickly for people that really need it. But when there was a perception of bias, Robert Jenrick pulled this thing and will allow a different minister to decide.”
Asked whether Desmond had enjoyed privileged access and what he would say to voters in the north of England who thought this looked unfair, Zahawi replied: “If people go to a fundraiser in their local area, Doncaster, for the Conservative Party they’ll be sitting next to MPs, other people in their local authority. They can interact with different parts of the authority.”
Still, he insisted: “The access didn’t buy this billionaire a decision.”