WhatsApp Messages Show Boris Johnson Offering to Support a New Cultural Expo in Exchange for Fancy Home Renovations

An ethics advisor found that Johnson acted "unwisely."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in hot water over his dealings with a House of Lords member who wanted his support for a 21st-century “Great Exhibition” modeled on the historic Crystal Palace expo of 1851.

Damning text messages suggest Johnson agreed to consider funding the event at the behest of David Brownlow, who was then funding refurbishments for the prime minister’s flat at Downing Street. An investigation into the redecoration’s financing turned up a WhatsApp message dated from November 2020, where Johnson asked Brownlow for approval on work with interior designer Lulu Lytle, adding “PS, am on the great exhibition plan, will revert.”

In response, Brownlow agree to finalize arrangements with the Lytle’s firm Soane Britain, and said “thanks for thinking about GE2.”

Word of the exchange has touched off a furor. “No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals,” Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, told the Guardian, noting that if Brownlow’s funding for the £112,000 ($150,000) home renovation project meant he was getting special consideration from Johnson. It was, she said, “corruption, plain and simple.”

Texts between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and David Brownlow. Courtesy of the U.K. Government.

Texts between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and David Brownlow. Courtesy of the U.K. Government.

The expensive remodeling job featured embossed wallpaper priced at more than £800 ($1,090) a roll, according to the Art Newspaper.

Despite the large sums involved, Johnson’s independent ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, found that Johnson had acted “unwisely,” but was not deliberately misleading.

The Crystal Palace (detail), 1851, England, London, Victoria and Albert museum, . (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Crystal Palace (detail), 1851, England, London, Victoria and Albert museum. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Brownlow did meet with Oliver Dowden, then the culture secretary, in January 2021 to discuss his hope of staging modern-day version of London’s 1951 Great Exposition, organized by Prince Albert. The so-called “Crystal Palace” exhibition brought together representatives of many nations, and is remembered as the prototype of the great World’s Fairs of the 19th century.

However, nothing ever came of these talks, which Brownlow hoped would lead to his proposal being included as part of a Festival of Brexit first proposed by former Prime Minister Theresa May, which was being planned for 2022.

The latter event, which will be a celebration of the arts, design, and technology, has since been rechristened Unboxed: Creativity in the U.K. It will feature 10 large-scale projects with free events and installations throughout the nation, as well as online content. Brownlow is not involved.


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