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The Robert Jenrick affair has the potential to do lasting damage to the government

A planning decision in January could yet come back to bite the government

The headlines are all about coronavirus and Brexit, but Jill Rutter says a planning decision in January could yet come back to bite the government

The story has it all. The first “millennial” cabinet minister. A rich Tory donor. A lavish dinner with an unfortunate seating plan. Potential connections into the heart of Downing Street. In normal times, it would be leading the news bulletins and splashed across the front pages. These are not normal times, however, and that makes the minister in question, Robert Jenrick, a lucky man – for now.

The government only gets involved in contentious planning decisions

At the heart of the story is a planning decision made by Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government. Ministers in that department make planning policy – but they also act as arbiter of last resort on planning decisions. As Jenrick explained to MPs in the Commons, only contentious decisions cross ministerial desks. The role is “quasi-judicial”, and ministers must act very carefully to preserve the integrity of those decisions lest they open the way to legal challenge.

On 14 January Jenrick took a decision on a big development in East London after the local authority, Tower Hamlets, had failed to decide in time. The Planning Inspectorate, an executive agency of the MHCLG, advised against, but Jenrick gave the go-ahead – critically, on the day before a hike in the Community Infrastructure Levy which would have cost the developer an estimated extra £40m. A few weeks later the developer, Richard Desmond, made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party. A few weeks previously, with the decision sitting on Jenrick’s desk, Desmond had sat next to the secretary of state at a Conservative Party fund-raising dinner.

Jenrick claims that official advice determined the timing of his decision

Tower Hamlets and the mayor of London challenged Jenrick’s decision, and in May the parties settled through a consent order. This led the secretary of state to concede that the timing of the decision “could lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” of bias. He agreed that his decision would be quashed, and it will now be redetermined by another minister in the department (which is normal practice in planning decisions).

Labour is now pressing for the papers leading up to the decision to be disclosed. Jenrick says the documents are all with the cabinet secretary, that he fully informed his department of his contact with Desmond before making the decision, and that officials advised that a decision was needed before the CIL hike. Delaying, and incurring the additional cost, would have made the scheme unviable. Jenrick’s assertions should have been documented – and there should also have been written advice on whether Jenrick needed to recuse himself from the decision. How much damage the affair does to the government in the long-term may depend on whether the cabinet secretary vindicates the secretary of state’s account.

Accusations of sleaze are highly damaging to the government

Jenrick’s position will become untenable if the cabinet secretary cannot back up his assertions. But even if he does vindicate Jenrick, the stench of sleaze could linger. 

Governments are vulnerable when it looks as though they are using their power to give unfair advantage to donors or supporters, or if there is the suggestion that access is for sale. John Major’s government added sleaze to the charge sheet of incompetence over the so-called cash for questions affair – much more minor than a lucrative planning decision – and both contributed to Tony Blair’s thumping majority in 1997. The shine was taken quickly off the Blair government over the suggestions that it had changed its policy on tobacco advertising in Formula 1 following a big donation from F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone – and Blair’s government was then investigated by the police over cash for honours. More recently both Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind saw their reputations take a hit when they appeared to be willing to trade access for cash. 

This is a government which has already taken a huge hit in popularity for refusing to sack Dominic Cummings over his apparent breach of the lockdown rules (and Jenrick himself faced difficult questions over his visit to his parents and second home early on in lockdown) while the prime minister’s own poll ratings have plummeted after criticism over his handling of the pandemic. The government does not want to have to fight on more fronts.

The biggest risk for the government is whether the Jenrick story has links to Downing Street

For now, at least, the row is centred entirely on Jenrick, but an even bigger risk to the government is if there is any evidence linking Downing Street to the decision. The development was initiated when Johnson was mayor of London, and Eddie Lister, one of his most senior advisers then, is working in Downing Street now. 

For the time being the prime minister will be relieved the heat is on Jenrick rather than reaching further into government. If the communities secretary cannot see the row off quickly, however, then the PM may be forced to sack him. He will be reluctant to add a ministerial scalp to the growing list of enforced government U-turns that Keir Starmer has notched up since becoming Labour leader – not least since Jenrick is one of the more competent performers in a cabinet short of talent. But if Jenrick goes, the spotlight could turn on No.10.

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