The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported plans for a new “Great Exhibition” proposed by a Tory donor who funded the lavish redecoration of the flat at 11 Downing Street, London.
David Brownlow, who sits in the House of Lords, provided funds as part of the £112,000 makeover of Johnson’s private residence overseen by the designer Lulu Lytle who runs a firm called Soane Britain; the embossed wallpaper used in Downing Street reportedly cost more than £800 a roll. Johnson’s wife Carrie Symonds was instrumental in the refurbishment.
Johnson has been criticised by his ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, for acting “unwisely” but was cleared of breaking the ministerial code during an investigation into the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment. In a scathing letter to Johnson on 17 December, Geidt includes a WhatsApp message dated 29 November 2020, in which Johnson tells Lord Brownlow: “PS, am on the great exhibition plan, will revert.”
Brownlow responded: “Thanks for thinking about GE2." He then met Oliver Dowden, the former culture secretary, 18 January 2021 to discuss the exhibition idea along with representatives of the Royal Albert Hall in London where Lord Brownlow is a trustee. The Royal Albert Hall did not respond to a request for comment at the time of writing.
According to the Telegraph, Dowden tried to link the Great Exhibition proposal to existing discussions around the planned "Brexit" festival, which was later named Unboxed. A spokesman for the prime minister says: “The government is taking forward Festival UK this year, which was confirmed in 2018, re-affirmed 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.” Lord Brownlow is not involved in the Unboxed festival.
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. 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.” The small business minister, Paul Scully, told Times Radio: “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."
The original Great Exhibition, conceived by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, opened at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. “Technological wonders from around the world were on display, but the exhibition was clearly dominated by Britain, the premier industrialised nation and workshop of the world,” according to the website history.com.