Sources suggest a cover-up after Downing Street claims not to hold records about taxpayer-funded flight Boris Johnson took to campaign in Hartlepool by-election

Sources suggest a cover-up after Downing Street claims not to hold records about taxpayer-funded flight Boris Johnson took to campaign in Hartlepool by-election
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Boris Johnson gives a thumbs-up from the steps of an aircraft
Boris Johnson. Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
  • Downing Street has claimed it does not hold records discussing a contested flight by Boris Johnson.

  • The trip by Johnson prompted criticism by potentially breaking election-spending rules.

  • Former special advisors have cast doubt that officials really have no evidence.

Downing Street claimed to have no records related to a contentious plane trip made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, prompting former officials to suggest the affair had been deliberately obscured.

The claim also drew criticism from opposition figures and campaigners, including a claim from a senior Liberal Democrat that Downing Street is guilty of "either cock-up or conspiracy."

The flight in question was made by Johnson around on April 1 in the run-up to the Hartlepool by-election, and saw him fly from London to Teesside on a taxpayer-funded jet.

While in the area, Johnson made an official visit to a B&Q store, and also campaigned with the Conservative candidate in the election, who went on to win.

Insider's reporting has shown that the Conservative Party did not register the cost of the flight in its official spending return, despite requirements to register such travel used in campaigning.

In its defence, Downing Street has said the flight was solely for the B&Q visit. Opposition figures said that claim was difficult to believe, and called for further investigation.

In an attempt to verify the claim that the flight was solely for government business, Insider made a Freedom of Information request seeking correspondence around the trip held either by Johnson's private office or the events team at Downing Street.

The response, which you can read below, was that they did not have any.

Insider spoke to two former special advisors - political appointees who work alongside civil servants - with close knowledge of events planning at Downing Street. They were granted anonymity to speak candidly.

One told Insider they would expect lots of documents around any trip, "including an itinerary and a travel plan."

They suggested one explanation could be if the Conservative Party organized the trip, rather than Downing Street.

But officials have insisted the flight was not a party-political event.

Another suggested it was possible that documents had been deleted, pointing to a 90-day retention policy after which some communications are purged.

Even in that case, the person said, there would be "more of a paper trail than what they're saying."

"In practice, there will be information left in the system. At some point someone would have put a note that went to the Prime Minister for approval."

Even for routine events next to his home, officials create an itinerary, as this photograph of a plan for a children's press conference at 9 Downing Street shows.

The former special advisor suggested that if the cost of the jet had been included it would have consumed as much as 20% of the total legally permitted spending for a by-election.

The visit to Middlesbrough gave the party a way to keep the expenditure off the books, the person suggested, a practice they said was common.

"These coincidences have been happening for decades."

They stressed, however, that after an extensive investigation by the Electoral Commission into Conservative spending in the 2015 general election, such coincidences became something "we were keen to avoid."

But under Boris Johnson, the source said, "these guys have pushed the envelope", and "gone further than previous administrations".

They cited the decision to have a military jet painted white with a Union Jack, which Johnson and other ministers use for high-profile vists. The paintjob may have rendered it unsuitable for its main purpose of refuelling military planes, the Guardian reported.

Alistair Carmichael MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on the Cabinet Office, told Insider: "It strains belief for the Prime Minister's office to suggest that they have had no discussions about the Prime Minister's travel during a highly publicised by-election.

"If - as the Tories have claimed - they are spending taxpayer money on this travel because it related to government business, then there must be a government paper trail. If there are no emails then it suggests either cock-up or conspiracy in No 10."

Transparency campaigners suggested that Downing Street was being especially unhelpful, noting its obligation to give Insider advice and assistance to help uncover more relevant information.

Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for the Freedom of Information, said: "The request specifically asked for assistance in this case. But an authority that does not want to disclose the information is unlikely to provide assistance."

Freedom of Information requests to Downing Street are made through the Cabinet Office, the department at the center of the UK government.

The Cabinet Office's handling of FOI requests is currently the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

It was prompted by widespread reports of obfuscation and delaying tactics by the department, which is responsible across government for the Freedom of Information Act.

A Downing Street spokesperson told Insider: "This request was responded to following due process and consideration in line with legal requirements."

Read the FOI response

Read Insider's previous coverage of Johnson's alleged use of taxpayer funds for private jet travel:

Read the original article on Business Insider

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting