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‘Nothing untoward’ in Johnson’s ‘great exhibition’ texts, says minister | Boris Johnson

There was “nothing untoward” in the prime minister discussing a proposed “great exhibition” with a Conservative donor who was helping to fund his Downing Street flat refurbishment, a minister has argued.

WhatsApp messages released on Thursday showed that Boris Johnson discussed the proposal with Lord Brownlow at the same time as requesting his help with the £112,000 revamp of his official residence at No 11, with the conversation leading to a meeting between the peer and the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden.

Asked whether the conversation about a “Great Exhibition 2.0” amounted to corruption, the small business minister, Paul Scully, told Times Radio. He said: “Ministers get proposals all the time and what rightly happened was that this got pushed on to the Culture, Media and Sport Department (DCMS) where it sits.

“Lord Brownlow made his own approaches and it wouldn’t have just gone to the prime minister, but the important thing is it’s not gone ahead … so there’s nothing untoward that’s happening out of, you know, a few lines in a WhatsApp.”

Downing Street said the proposal for Great Exhibition 2.0 was not taken forward although the government is going ahead with Festival UK, which was first announced in 2018.

However, ministerial records show that only two months after Johnson’s exchanges with Brownlow, the peer attended a meeting with Dowden to discuss the proposal.

Labour said that if Brownlow had access to senior ministers because he was footing the bill for the refurbishment work it was “corruption plain and simple”.

On Thursday, Johnson was forced to issue a “humble and sincere apology” to his standards adviser, Christopher Geidt, after he failed to inform him of the exchange with Brownlow when he carried out an investigation into the funding of work last year.

Johnson said he did not recall the exchanges and that the messages were on an old mobile phone, which he no longer had access to because the phone number was published on the website Popbitch.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “It appears that Lord Brownlow had access to the prime minister and culture secretary because he was paying for his luxury flat renovations.

“It is pretty unbelievable that Boris Johnson didn’t know who was paying for his luxury flat renovations. If so, that is corruption plain and simple. No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals. Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer.”

In a statement, a No 10 spokesman said: “All prime ministers and ministers have proposals put to them at various points and ministers also meet stakeholders regularly as part of their engagement on an array of issues.

“In line with normal practice, this idea was referred to the relevant department, considered and ultimately not taken forward by the government.

“The government is taking forward Festival UK this year, which was confirmed in 2018, reaffirmed in the 2019 manifesto and is a cultural programme of events, called ‘Unboxed’, on arts, design and technology which will span the whole of the UK.”

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