Senior Tories have come to the defence of Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick amid calls for him to resign over his part in rushing through a controversial housing development.
Explosive documents published on Wednesday revealed the extent of contact between Mr Jenrick and Westferry Printworks developer Richard Desmond before the Cabinet minister signed off on the 1,500-house scheme.
They revealed that the pair exchanged text messages following a meeting at a Conservative fundraising event in November and that officials in Mr Jenrick’s department described him as being “insistent” the project be given the green light before an infrastructure levy was brought in.
Mr Jenrick later had to quash his own approval, conceding the decision was “unlawful”.
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.
Sent out to defend Mr Jenrick on the air waves, business minister Nadhim Zahawi said the fresh documents proved there was no overt influence exerted by ex-Daily Express owner Mr Desmond.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The important thing, by the way, is 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 at, 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’.”
When asked whether those who voted Tory for the first time at the election in Labour’s traditional heartland areas would be afforded the same level of access to decision makers as Mr Desmond, 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,” said the minister.
The stash of documents and texts, released after pressure from the opposition, showed multi-millionaire Tory donor Mr Desmond urged Mr Jenrick to approve the east London development scheme so that “Marxists” did not get “doe for nothing”.
In an email disclosed in the batch of Government papers, a Housing Ministry official indicated 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 ie 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 was given a vote of confidence on Wednesday evening after the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, said the Prime Minister considered the matter “closed”.
But Lord Bob Kerslake, a former head of the Civil Service, said the newly disclosed details “raised some troubling issues” about the level of “access and influence” afforded to developers during the planning appeals process.
Before the publication of the documents, the Housing Secretary had already faced accusations of “cash for favours” after it emerged former Channel 5 proprietor Mr Desmond had personally given the Tories £12,000 two weeks after Westferry was approved.
Mr Jenrick 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”.
Labour peer Lord Kerslake told the Today programme: “I don’t for a moment suggest the minister took his decision simply because of a donation to the Conservative Party.
“But the fact is, for the price of a dinner, the developer was able to present his scheme to the minister, follow up with texts and seek to influence the decision.”
Yet Sir Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Commons liaison committee, said he thought ex-Treasury minister Mr Jenrick would survive the calls for him to resign.
When asked on the Today programme whether he thought Mr Jenrick would remain in his job, the senior Tory MP said: “Yes I do.”
Sir Bernard added: “In these things, what happens next depends on whether anything new comes out.
“It looks as if he has put everything on the table. I suspect the storm will pass.”