A minister has suggested voters should consider attending Tory fundraisers in their local area if the want access to MPs, as he rejected claims Robert Jenrick gave “special treatment” to a billionaire property developer.
Nadhim Zahawi’s remarks come as the housing secretary faces escalating pressure after new papers suggested he was “insistent” a decision on a £1bn property development be rushed through before a Conservative donor’s company faced millions in taxes.
Defending the under-fire cabinet minister, Mr Zahawi rejected there was any “smoking gun” over the issue, and that Mr Jenrick had pulled the plug on Richard Desmond’s proposed east London property development when there was a “perception of bias”.
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But during a heated exchange on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Zahawi was repeatedly questioned on the access Mr Desmond had to the housing secretary, after the pair were seated next to each other at a Conservative Party fundraising event at the Savoy hotel.
At the weekend, Mr Desmond also claimed to have showed Mr Jenrick a promotional video during the November event lasting “three or four minutes” and papers released last night show the pair exchanged text messages after the fundraiser.
Challenged on why Tory voters in Doncaster or Ashfield did not have similar kinds of access to government as the billionaire, Mr Zahawi replied: “If people go to a fundraiser in their local area in Doncaster for the Conservative Party they’d be sitting next to MPs and other people in their local authority, and can interact with different parts of the authority.”
He went on: “The important thing by the way is the access didn’t buy this billionaire a decision. The secretary of state very clearly said to Richard Desmond ‘I can’t see you, I cannot have this meeting.
“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 those messages that he released – ‘I can’t have this meeting with you’.”
Emails from January, released last night, show Mr Jenrick was determined to issue a decision on the Westferry Printworks development the following day to prevent billionaire Mr Desmond from being forced to pay a new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).
Mr Jenrick overruled the local authority and the planning inspector to approve the scheme for 1,500 houses in January, only weeks before Mr Desmond personally donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.
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The housing secretary later had to reverse the decision after legal action from the council, conceding the decision was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.
When put to him that emails from officials released on Wednesday showed that Mr Jenrick pushed for approval to be made quickly, Mr Zahawi added: “There is a very important word there – ‘viability’ of the scheme.
“That was another reason in the information released yesterday, that was a concern to Robert Jenrick – he wanted to make sure the scheme gets built, that it is viable and that affordable housing is delivered.”
He added: “Viability is incredibly important. Getting stuff built is incredibly important to Robert Jenrick – that was his motivation.
“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.”
Lord Bob Kerslake, a former head of the Civil Service, said the relationship between Housing Secretary and the wealthy former newspaper raised questions about the planning process.
Lord Kerslake, an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn when he was Labour leader, told the BBC: “I’m pleased the documents have come out but I do think they have raised some troubling issues, I have to say, about access and influence.
“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.”
Responding Mr Zahawi’s comments, Ed Davey, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “It is scandalous to suggest that the most appropriate way for the public to lobby Conservative MPs is to pour money into Tory party coffers. Members of Parliament are there to serve all their constituents, not just those who can write them big cheques.
“The prime minister now must show leadership. He must sack Robert Jenrick for his role in the Westferry scandal and urgently clarify that he does not agree with the position taken by Nadhim Zahawi on the radio this morning.”