Robert Jenrick is facing a probe by the Parliamentary watchdog over a ‘cash-for-access’ row involving a Tory donor’s £1billion property development – as Boris Johnson also faced question.
Labour today reported the Housing Secretary to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate whether he breached the code of conduct for MPs.
The Prime Minister yesterday rejected calls for a formal investigation into Mr Jenrick’s dealings with billionaire property developer and former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond.
Mr Jenrick rushed through the approval of Mr Desmond’s plan to build 1,500 homes in east London, saving him tens of millions of pounds, after they sat together at a Conservative Party event.
But Mr Johnson now risks being dragged into the row after it emerged he also spent time with the former newspaper owner at the fundraiser. The Daily Mail has established that a photograph of the two men with their arms around each other was taken during the event at the Savoy Hotel in November.
The PM has denied any involvement in the decision to give Mr Desmond permission for his development at the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs.
Labour’s shadow communities and local government secretary, Steve Reed said: ‘The Prime Minister can’t just sweep this issue under the carpet.
‘There are still so many unanswered questions about Robert Jenrick’s unlawful attempt to help Richard Desmond dodge £150 million in tax, days before he made a generous donation to the Conservative Party.
‘The Prime Minister has yet again shown woefully poor judgment by not referring clear breaches of the ministerial code to the Cabinet secretary and he must now come clean himself about his own involvement in this case.
Boris Johnson with Richard Desmond at The Savoy in November. The PM has denied any involvement in the decision to give Mr Desmond permission for his development at the former Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs
Mr Jenrick (pictured) rushed through the approval of Mr Desmond’s plan to build 1,500 homes in east London, saving him tens of millions of pounds, after they sat together at a Conservative Party event
A new YouGov poll today showed that four in 10 voters think Mr Jenrick should resign, with just one in 10 saying he should keep his job
‘The Government must publish all the remaining secret documents in this case to show the public what Mr Jenrick and the Prime Minister were really up to, and prove that this is not the start of a new era of Tory sleaze.’
But Downing Street has repeatedly refused to disclose what contacts Mr Johnson has had with the businessman since entering No 10.
Other photographs from the evening show attendees also included Sir Eddie Lister, the Prime Minister’s chief strategic adviser.
Sir Eddie approved an earlier proposal for the Westferry development in 2016 when he was Mr Johnson’s deputy mayor at City Hall.
A new YouGov poll today showed that four in 10 voters think Mr Jenrick should resign, with just one in 10 saying he should keep his job.
Referring to a letter from Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to Mr Reed earlier in the week, a Downing Street spokesman told a Westminster briefing this morning: ‘The Housing Secretary has set out his position, his account, in public, and the Cabinet Secretary has written… and in his letter makes it clear the Prime Minister considers this matter closed.’
The Downing Street spokesman added: ‘We have been clear that no-one in Number 10 discussed this planning application or appeal with Mr Desmond, or his representatives.’
Meanwhile, Mr Jenrick has had a potential new role stripped following the controversy, according to the Telegraph.
The Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government was to be handed extraordinary new powers that would allow him to effectively bypass local authorities in an attempt to meet the prime minister’s house-building targets.
Government planning advisers had pushed for a system of development cooperations which would allow the ministry to buy plots of land, get planning permission for homes and then sell the land on to developers at a profit.
It was originally expected to be revealed during a major speech Mr Johnson is set to give next week on rebuilding Britain post-coronavirus.
Labour’s shadow communities and local government secretary, Steve Reed said: ‘The Prime Minister can’t just sweep this issue under the carpet’
But Number 10 have since denied the existence of such plans. A spokesman said: ‘These claims are untrue.’
It comes after Labour yesterday issued a fresh call for the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, to launch a formal investigation into Mr Jenrick. The PM is refusing to allow an inquiry despite the release this week of damning documents that lay bare communications between the Housing Secretary and Mr Desmond.
They show that the businessman pleaded with Mr Jenrick to give the project the go-ahead before a Labour-run council brought in a levy that would cost him £45million.
In one text message, Mr Desmond wrote: ‘We appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!’
Emails between Mr Jenrick’s officials show the minister was ‘insistent’ the planning decision should be made before the levy came in. Two weeks after permission was granted in January, Mr Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC yesterday: ‘It’s now got to the stage where the Prime Minister’s judgment is in issue.
‘He says the matter is closed, but it’s far from closed. The latest disclosures show discrepancies, they show Jenrick initiated conversations.
‘We want straight answers on this and I think the public do, they can tell something’s wrong here. Straight answers, full disclosure and an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary.’
Mr Jenrick rushed through the approval of Mr Desmond’s plan to build 1,500 homes in east London , saving him tens of millions of pounds, after they sat together at a Conservative Party event
Labour’s housing spokesman Steve Reed called on Mr Jenrick to come before Parliament to ‘explain major discrepancies’ between his account of what happened and documents that have been released.
Downing Street, which has distanced itself from the planning decision, said Mr Johnson still has ‘full confidence’ in Mr Jenrick.
No 10 says it considers the matter closed and last night, when asked about the picture of Mr Johnson and Mr Desmond together at the fundraiser, a spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister has not discussed this Westferry planning application or appeal with either Mr Desmond or his representatives. Nor has anyone else in No 10. Any suggestion to the contrary is completely false.’
Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi also came to Mr Jenrick’s defence, insisting he had done nothing wrong and suggesting any voter could talk to Tory MPs by going to a party fundraiser. ‘They’ll be sitting next to MPs and other people in their area,’ he added.
Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs said: ‘The revelations about the Westferry Printworks decision have blown apart confidence in our planning system under Mr Jenrick. It looks like he rushed through the decision to help save the developer money and short-change my residents.’
Mr Jenrick accepted last month that his decision had been ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’ after Tower Hamlets launched a High Court challenge. He agreed for the approval to be quashed and to take no further part in decisions.
If you plan to dine with Desmond, then bring a long spoon
By Paul Bracchi
Richard Desmond drives a Rolls-Royce with the number plate RCDI. It stands for Richard Clive Desmond One. ‘Because Richard Clive Desmond always has to be number one,’ says someone who used to work closely with him.
Few would doubt that he has achieved his ambition. Desmond, 68, has a fortune estimated at £2billion, travels by private jet and has a mansion in ‘billionaires’ row’ – The Bishops Avenue in north London. It is said a butler used to deliver a banana on a silver tray twice a day to him at his opulent office in the City.
But Desmond’s journey to the top, to be Number One – at least in financial terms – has perhaps earned him more enemies than friends. Might this explain why, at one time, he had his own bodyguard who was also his driver?
Either way, there can’t be many more controversial businessmen in Britain than Richard Desmond, the former porn baron-turned-newspaper magnate-turned-property mogul – an individual who left school at 15 and who, while admirable, inspires fear and loathing in equal measure.
Richard Desmond (pictured) drives a Rolls-Royce with the number plate RCDI. It stands for Richard Clive Desmond One. ‘Because Richard Clive Desmond always has to be number one,’ says someone who used to work closely with him
His Northern & Shell empire, now the vehicle for his real estate operation, once included Penthouse and Asian Babes, and X-rated satellite channels such as Red Hot as well as OK! magazine and the Daily Express and Daily Star.
His ‘porn’ network was sold off in a bid to improve his image and he has given millions to good causes. Yet, much to his annoyance and frustration, his reputation still precedes him.
‘The Tyrant of OK magazine’ was the headline of an article I wrote about him for this newspaper a number of years ago. At times, it was difficult to believe what was being relayed to me by those who had experienced Desmond’s management style. These kind of ‘stories’ resurface whenever Desmond is in the news, as he is today over the so-called ‘cash for favours’ scandal which threatens to bring down Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick.
During one meeting at his London headquarters, I was told how he hurled a chair (a big leather one with two armrests) because a senior executive had upset him.
On another occasion, Desmond – who divorced first wife Janet in 2010 when his second, Joy, was already pregnant – went ballistic when a female executive was late for a meeting.
‘When she walked through in through the door Richard said: ‘Right, you’re f****** late, get in the cupboard’,’ revealed an employee who was only too happy to talk – off-the-record, of course.
‘The woman told him she was sorry for being a little late but she was not going to carry out his instructions. Richard just wouldn’t give in. There were a number of visitors in the boardroom that morning. They were absolutely stunned. Richard finally ordered the woman out of the boardroom. She resigned shortly afterwards.’
Sometimes verbal confrontations turned physical – such as the time Desmond took a swing at an editor at the Daily Express.
The journalist’s mistake? He had left out a story which subsequently appeared in the Daily Mail. Desmond’s ‘target’ avoided the first blow but ended up being jabbed in the stomach in full view of other members of the editorial staff. The editor felt he had no alternative but to leave and then brought a case for constructive dismissal. The proprietor agreed to settle at the 11th hour.
Few who were there will forget Desmond’s performance in 2004, when he goose-stepped in his boardroom, holding two fingers to his upper lip ‘Basil Fawlty-style’, in a puerile attempt to embarrass his rivals at The Daily Telegraph, who at the time were the subject of interest from a German publisher. ‘I was having a laugh at their misfortunes,’ Desmond, who is Jewish, said later.
The German theme also featured in a spoof edition of OK! on the wall of his boardroom. Snarling out from the front cover was a salivating bulldog under the headline: ‘Over the Ages Britain has Repelled the Invaders.’
Underneath, the text boasted of past victories over Germany in the war and the 1966 World Cup Final and, more pointedly, the Spanish Armada. OK!’s most bitter rival was Spanish-owned Hello!
Mr Jenrick agreed to take no further part in decisions about the redevelopment of the former print works at Westferry
It might have been a spoof but it encapsulated Desmond’s business philosophy which, to put it bluntly, is to see off the opposition. There are many other examples of his hard-nosed approach.
After staff at his Express newspaper titles went a seventh consecutive year without pay rises, the National Union of Journalists described Desmond as ‘Britain’s greediest billionaire’.
‘Worst human being on Earth,’ was how one industry executive described him before he took over Channel 5 in 2005 (since sold again). In the subsequent bloodbath, seven out of nine directors were culled. Afterwards, his executives were forced to sing The Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun.
Most of all, Desmond’s enemies have seized on a story that (in 1992) he was threatened by the US mafia which was using his adult magazines for an advertising scam without his knowledge. It was claimed in court documents that a senior executive was abducted in New York by gangsters who slashed his face with a knife and ‘applied a Taser-style’ stun gun to his testicles. Desmond dismissed the account as ‘pure fantasy’.
A spokesman said his ‘company had never knowingly had anything other than legitimate dealings with businesses’.
But there is no doubt that such stories, accurate or not, do nothing for his public image. He still loathes the fact he is best known for being the purveyor of top-shelf magazines, even though they were sold off in 2004.
Today, Desmond still runs Northern & Shell but it is a vehicle for his property development empire – which is why he is back on the front pages.
The unfolding controversy has embroiled Mr Jenrick, who approved Desmond’s plans for 1,500 flats in Docklands just a fortnight before the billionaire donated £12,000 to the Tory Party. The decision was rushed through to ensure Desmond did not have to pay a community levy of £40million.
Desmond denied any impropriety in an interview with the Sunday Times at the weekend.
He said: ‘All we ever wanted to do, all we want to do, is build first-class homes in London in a first-class development where in fact Joy and I are going to have an apartment. We want to be proud of it. We’ve even, for a p***-take, called it Desmond Boulevard.’
He prefers the narrative of his autobiography, The Real Deal, which he wrote five years ago, to the one portrayed in the papers.
That tells the story of how a Jewish kid from north London – brought up by his mother after his father gambled away their savings – became a billionaire.
‘Yes, he can be a bit ruthless,’ a close friend of Desmond, who also used to work for him, told the Mail. ‘But he has done a lot in his life. I thought he was one of the cleverest people I have ever worked with, certainly on magazines. He was absolutely brilliant. But he can be difficult.’
That, as they say, is an understatement. To adapt an old saying, perhaps Mr Jenrick should have known that if you dine with Mr Desmond, prepare to bring a long spoon.
This ulcerous wound will fester for Tories
By Andrew Wood – Councillor who resigned from the Tories in Tower Hamlets, East London
The first rule of politics – for local councillors and MPs alike – is that planning decisions are sacrosanct.
From start to finish, the process must be open and free from the taint of bias. No backroom deals or calling in political favours or conducting clandestine conversations. To do otherwise risks destroying the public confidence that gave you your job in the first place.
Sadly, the murky saga of the Westferry Printworks development, which is now inflicting such damage on the Government, strays very far from the ideal.
Through naivety, incompetence or carelessness, the inexperienced Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has been outfoxed by the billionaire developer and former press tycoon Richard Desmond.
And as a result, not only is his career under threat – but the reputation of the Conservative Party is on the brink, too. In fact, it would be entirely understandable if those tens of thousands of so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters, the traditional Labour supporters who switched to Boris Johnson in last year’s general election, now turned their backs on his party for ever.
After all, that’s just what I did in February when I resigned from the Tory Party after Mr Jenrick’s approval of the scheme came to light. Since 2014 I have served on Tower Hamlets Council as one of two representatives for Canary Wharf, where Mr Desmond’s development is due to be built.
Robert Jenrick, 38, and his wife (pictured together in Newark in 2014), 47. Mr Jenrick has now been exposed playing the same old games, putting the demands of a multi-millionaire before the needs of citizens
Although the area is naturally Labour territory, I have managed to win and retain the seat as a Conservative because of my record of hard work in the area.
But Mr Jenrick’s actions threw that commitment back in my face. The Government is mistaken if it thinks it has put a lid on the scandal by publishing Mr Jenrick’s correspondence with Mr Desmond.
For on a deeper level, this saga represents an ulcerous wound that will continue to fester for the Tory Party, which has long struggled to shake off the image of sleaze. For Mr Johnson, the Westferry scandal is particularly injurious because he won last December’s election with a firm commitment to social justice and the expansion of social and affordable housing.
It was a message that resonated profoundly in so many former Labour strongholds in the Midlands and the North. And as a result, many turned their backs on long-standing tradition and took a gamble by voting Conservative.
Yet Mr Jenrick has now been exposed playing the same old games, putting the demands of a multi-millionaire before the needs of citizens.
For that reason alone, the Prime Minister should get rid of him – or face alienating his new Tory voters after little more than six months.