STEPHEN GLOVER: This haughty and reckless minister is now a drag on the Tories
Let us imagine that a Tory Cabinet minister sat next to a billionaire property developer at a Conservative Party dinner at the Savoy Hotel in London last November, and that the property developer showed the minister a promotional video on his smartphone for a huge housing scheme.
Suppose that two months later the Cabinet minister overturned a planning decision against the property developer’s £1 billion plan to build 1,500 homes in East London, and did so a day before a so-called ‘community infrastructure levy’ was introduced, thereby saving the billionaire tens of millions of pounds.
And then picture the property developer giving a £12,000 donation to the Tory Party two weeks later.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick (pictured) is under pressure following several claims about his financial conduct
Envisage the minister having soon to back down because, in his own words, the process he had overseen had been ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’.
You might suppose, after such shenanigans, that there would be an enormous political and media hoo-ha, and the minister in question would have been packed off by the Prime Minister, or at least received a severe dressing-down.
But Robert Jenrick hasn’t resigned for having given a helping hand to Richard Desmond, the former pornographer turned newspaper magnate turned property developer.
He is still very much in his job as Housing and Communities Secretary. He came to the House of Commons yesterday afternoon to answer Labour accusations that he has acted improperly, bearing an appearance of affronted innocence.
Why hasn’t there been more of a rumpus? Although newspapers including the Mail have run numerous stories about the affair, it hasn’t yet turned into such a major scandal that Mr Jenrick has been forced to walk the plank.
Without doubt we have been distracted by the great scourge of Covid-19. Labour has been pretty hopeless, though yesterday was more effective.
And maybe Mr Jenrick is such a bland and obscure fellow that it is hard for his would-be persecutors to get worked up.
But I’d like to suggest another reason for his survival so far. Last night, the Housing Secretary was finally forced to release what he described as ‘relevant’ documents about the affair.
Many of the exchanges are redacted but they do include texts in which Mr Desmond was putting pressure on a seemingly cooperative Mr Jenrick.
While there appears to be no evidence of any outright corruption, there is much to suggest that the minister has been careless and high-handed when it comes to following rules.
Consider the facts. Would any person of sound mind manipulate the planning system in return for a paltry donation of £12,000, which wasn’t even paid to him but to the Conservative Party? The idea is ludicrous.
The Housing Secretary is believed to have granted permission for a £1billion property development in the London Docklands (pictured) which is linked to both a Tory donor and a lobbyist
Mr Jenrick would have to be a grade-one nincompoop to risk so much for a sum of money that any political party in search of funds would regard as almost derisory.
That is why Labour claims of ‘sleaze’ flung about yesterday in the Commons were wide of the mark.
No, he was moved to bend the rules in favour of Richard Desmond not for personal or party gain but because he is determined to build as many houses as possible. In this endeavour, he has Boris Johnson breathing down his neck.
Here was Mr Desmond offering to build 1,500 homes but being thwarted by what Mr Jenrick called the ‘do-nothing Labour council’ of Tower Hamlets, whose planning officer insisted that 35 per cent of the new houses should be subsidised ‘social housing’. Mr Desmond didn’t like that.
Mr Jenrick took the view that the only way to get these vital houses built by the billionaire developer was to overrule Tower Hamlets and accept a smaller proportion of social housing of 21 per cent.
Whether he was right or wrong is not really the point. It was a political decision. The trouble is that, having decided what he would do, Mr Jenrick played fast and loose with the rules, and repeatedly showed poor judgment.
The matter was already in the hands of his department when he walked into the Savoy last November. We may surmise that Mr Desmond had arranged to sit at the same table.
Whatever the case, although Mr Jenrick says he had never met the developer, he should have scarpered when he saw he had been put next to him.
Having failed to take the simple precaution of seeking a place on another table, the Housing Secretary compounded his error by allowing Mr Desmond to wave his promotional video in front of him.
Last night’s disclosures include a damning text from Mr Jenrick to Mr Desmond on the night of the event saying that it was ‘good to spend time with him’ and he looked forward to seeing him again.
Mr Jenrick (pictured) is believed to have played fast and loose with the rules – and repeatedly showed poor judgment
As he had been personally compromised, Mr Jenrick should have put the matter in the hands of another minister to avoid the insinuation of ‘apparent bias’ of which he later spoke. He thought he could ignore the rules.
This is not the first time that he has been accused of breaking his own regulations. At the end of March, he seemingly flouted lockdown rules, shortly after exhorting us to obey them, by driving from London to his house in Herefordshire, and then to his elderly parents’ home in nearby Shropshire.
The trip to Shropshire was justified by him, not unreasonably, as a mercy mission. Much less convincing was his assertion that the Herefordshire house was his main residence (and therefore permissible to visit) despite the fact that he and his wife have a large house in London that seems to function as a family home.
Mr Jenrick appears to be one of those people (like Boris) who can’t bear being tied down.
One imagines his headmaster ending his school report with words to the effect that ‘Robert is a pleasant and bright boy but he would be well-advised in life to take greater account of the rules’.
Yesterday The Times produced another example of the Housing Secretary’s apparent impatience with protocol.
In 2013, a year before he became an MP, an extension to his London house was approved by Tory councillors despite officials having objected to the scheme three times.
Furthermore, an extension to his London townhouse (pictured) was approved by Tory councillors in 2013 despite officials having objected to the scheme three times
By the way, a further example of alleged rule-bending should be treated with extreme caution.
The Times also recently reported that Mr Jenrick intervened in a development project at Sandown Park Racecourse in Esher, Surrey, which is backed by prominent Tory donors. However, the minister yesterday denied any involvement.
Overwrought connections are being made following the sudden tragic death yesterday of Rose Paterson, wife of Tory MP Owen Paterson, since she was on the board of Sandown. Any link to an impending planning decision by Mr Jenrick’s department is surely fanciful.
What should become of him? Boris Johnson’s suggestion last night that the matter was ‘closed’ seems wildly optimistic. I don’t like proposing that ministers should resign, especially when they have been foolish rather than venal, but this haughty and reckless man is in danger of becoming a drag on the Government.
The charges of sleaze are unproven, but they could become damaging. With more guile than it has so far shown, Labour could turn this into a plausible tale of Tories helping their rich friends in return for hand-outs.
Robert Jenrick has been a chump. By his own account he behaved ‘unlawfully’. Isn’t that reason enough to go?
Ceding political power is always hard, but those who do the honourable thing can return to fight another day.
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