Anyone attending Tory fundraising events could get similar access to politicians as wealthy developer Richard Desmond, a Government minister said as senior Conservatives defended Robert Jenrick.
The Housing Secretary is fighting to keep his job after documents revealed the extent of the contact between himself and Mr Desmond before the Cabinet minister signed off on the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme in east London.
The pair exchanged text messages following a meeting at a Conservative Party event in November and officials in Mr Jenrick’s department described him as being “insistent” that the project be given the green light before a new levy added millions to the cost.
Mr Jenrick later had to quash his own approval, conceding that the decision was “unlawful” due to “apparent bias”.
Labour claims the move to approve before Tower Hamlets Council’s community infrastructure levy (CIL) came into force would have saved Mr Desmond’s Northern and Shell company up to £50 million on the scheme, which was reported to be worth £1 billion.
Business minister Nadhim Zahawi said the fresh documents proved there was no overt influence exerted by ex-Daily Express owner Mr Desmond.
Under pressure to explain why a wealthy businessman could have such access, Mr Zahawi indicated that anybody could deploy similar tactics.
“If people go to a fundraiser in their local area, in Doncaster (for example), for the Conservative Party, they will be sitting next to MPs and other people in their local authorities and can interact with different parts of the authority,” he said.
Mr Zahawi stressed that “the access did not buy this billionaire a decision”.
“Yes, of course there was access, because there was a dinner party that Robert Jenrick didn’t know he was going to sit next to Richard Desmond in, but Robert Jenrick also said in those messages, that he released after promising the select committee he would release them, ‘I can’t have this meeting with you’.”
A Labour spokesman said: “Senior Tories say that anyone can get the same access to the Government Richard Desmond enjoys – all they have to do is attend swanky Tory fundraisers and hope they get sat next to an MP.
“The ‘cash for favours’ scandal has laid bare that it’s one rule for the Tories and their wealthy friends, another for the rest of us.”
Liberal Democrat housing spokesman Tim Farron said: “The ‘defence’ of Robert Jenrick is in reality little more than an admission of cash for access. It seems the Tory Party’s commitment to the ‘levelling up’ agenda amounts to sleaze and corruption.”
He added: “I have nothing against Mr Jenrick personally, but integrity in politics matters. He must resign today, and, if not, the PM must dismiss him or else lose all moral authority.”
The stash of documents and texts, released after pressure from the opposition, showed that multi-millionaire Tory donor Mr Desmond urged Mr Jenrick to approve the east London development scheme so that “Marxists” did not get “doe (sic) for nothing”.
In an email disclosed in the batch of Government papers, a Housing Ministry official indicated that the Secretary of State (SoS) wanted Westferry to be signed off and approved the following day so that it would avoid the CIL.
It stated: “On timing, my understanding is that SoS is/was insistent that decision issued this week i.e. tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime.”
But Mr Zahawi said the “viability” mentioned was about Mr Jenrick’s desire to “make sure the scheme gets built” to provide more housing.
“Viability is incredibly important. Getting stuff built is incredibly important to Robert Jenrick – that was his motivation,” he told the BBC.
“But when there was a perception of bias, he pulled back on this, pulled the plug on it and will allow a different minister to decide the scheme.”
Mr Jenrick received backing from No 10 on Wednesday evening after Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill said Prime Minister Boris Johnson considered the matter “closed”.
Mr Desmond donated £12,000 to the Tories two weeks after Westferry was approved by Mr Jenrick.
The Cabinet minister originally gave the development the go-ahead in January 2020, overruling both Tower Hamlets Council and a planning inspector.
He subsequently reversed the ruling following legal action by the council, admitting that what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee, said he thought Mr Jenrick would survive the calls for him to resign.
The senior Tory said: “Clearly there has been a little bit of a mistake and the decision has had to be rescinded but there is no sign of actual maladministration.”