Boris Johnson’s failure to authorise an inquiry into the controversial approval of a £1bn homes project by his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, also played a role in the recent resignation of the prime minister’s ethics adviser.
Alex Allan quit his position last month after the prime minister overruled his advice and cleared the home secretary, Priti Patel, of bullying allegations.
Legal and Whitehall sources have revealed, however, that Allan was already concerned that the prime minister had not requested an inquiry to examine the controversy around Jenrick’s backing for a housing development by billionaire Richard Desmond that would help the Tory party donor avoid tax of £45m.
After sitting beside Desmond at a fundraising dinner, Jenrick overruled the local authority Tower Hamlets in east London and the government planning inspectorate to give permission for the development. Desmond donated £12,000 to the party a fortnight after permission was granted.
Johnson had sole authority to request an inquiry into Jenrick’s conduct when the revelations emerged over the summer, a process that would have been overseen by Allan. Jenrick has denied any wrongdoing or bias but admitted his decision had been “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.
John Biggs, the Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets, said Allan’s apparent disquiet on several issues reflected what he called a “comprehensive ethical vacuum” at the heart of government.
He added: “This doesn’t remotely surprise me. The failure to act shows a more comprehensive ethical vacuum.”
Meanwhile, new polling shows the extent to which Johnson’s decision to overrule Allan’s advice and stand by Patel, despite a report that concluded her behaviour had breached the ministerial code, has harmed the government.
Nearly half (43%) of the British public say their confidence in the government decreased because of its handling of the bullying claims, according to the survey by Opinium with Compassion in Politics.
A fifth of Conservative supporters said that confidence in their own party had been reduced by the issue.
Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government, said the Jenrick and Desmond saga exposed the situation whereby the prime minister has the absolute authority to launch misconduct investigations and also has the final say in their outcomes.
Thomas, who was a senior civil servant for 17 years, and was civil service head Jeremy Heywood’s private secretary from 2016 to 2018, added: “It’s important that allegations are investigated and it’s also important that there is an independent oversight. For the health of the system, [the issue] would benefit from a proper investigation without prejudice to the outcome.”