Robert Jenrick was facing fresh controversy today over his backing for a Tory donor’s £1billion property development as it was revealed he over-ruled civil servants who ‘begged him’ to block it.
Whistleblowers claim the Housing Secretary rode roughshod over warnings from inside his own department to refuse an appeal by former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond, who wanted to build 1,500 luxury homes in a deprived part of East London.
Beleaguered Mr Jenrick last week released a cache of documents relating to the Westferry Printworks saga and admitted making mistakes.
Last month, the Mail on Sunday revealed the Housing Secretary had been lobbied about the application to build 1,500 flats in London’s Docklands by billionaire tycoon Mr Desmond at a Tory Party fundraiser.
The former owner of the Express later made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party and was in text message contact with Mr Jenrick on November 18 last year after swapping numbers at the exclusive dinner.
Today it was revealed that Mr Jenrick was told by staff there was a 70-80 per cent the case would be overturned in the courts, but replied there was ‘no point’ trying to overturn his decision in January.
In a WhatsApp message he told his private secretary to inform staff that his decision was ‘final’ the Sunday Times reported.
It came as the Prime Minsister’s own links with Mr Desmond came under fresh scrutiny, as Mr Desmond claimed he committed to easing gambling rules to assist his Health Lottery, which raises cash for charity.
The Mail on Sunday has seen an account from one civil servant working on the Westferry application who has accused Mr Jenrick (right) of playing ‘fast and loose’ with the case
Mr Jenrick’s decision to give the green light to the Westferry development was challenged in the High Court over the ‘appearance of bias’ and he did not contest the case. He told MPs on Wednesday that he alerted his officials to his relationship with Mr Desmond one month later on December 17, even though he had asked to speed up the project a day after the dinner.
However, The Mail on Sunday has seen an account from one civil servant working on the Westferry application that casts doubt on this version of events.
The official has accused Mr Jenrick of playing ‘fast and loose’ with the case and said the connection to Mr Desmond was not shared with those working directly on it.
The whistleblower wrote: ‘I can confirm that at no point did Mr Jenrick or his Special Advisers alert us to the fundraiser dinner he attended with Mr Desmond or the short conversation he had with him about the application.’
They added that if staff had known, ‘We would have pushed much harder for the decision to be rethought given the conflict of interest.’
Mr Jenrick’s decision to give the green light to the Westferry development (pictured) was challenged in the High Court over the ‘appearance of bias’ and he did not contest the case
‘Mr Jenrick had a far more fast and loose approach to casework.’
But last night, a spokesman for the Housing Department rejected the claims stating: ‘On reappointment, the Secretary of State informed his private office that he had met the applicant at a dinner, and that some texts had been exchanged. As he was clear to the applicant that he couldn’t discuss it, the matter was left there.’ In a separate development, Mr Jenrick last night sought to close down a growing row over his relationship with London-based Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer.
In 2019, Mr Jenrick had to recuse himself from a Treasury investment decision over a £2 billion loan to North East mining project Sirius Minerals after meeting with Mr Ofer – whose firm is a direct competitor to the planned fertiliser mine.
It is understood the pair know each other socially, with a spokesman for Mr Ofer saying he could not recall if the mine had come up in conversation, adding: ‘If it did it would have been touched on only briefly.’ And Mr Jenrick denied a Westminster rumour that he had met with Mr Ofer in the United States in 2018.
His spokesman insisted: ‘There was no meeting with Mr Ofer in Florida. When in post as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Jenrick voluntarily recused himself after he was made aware that Mr Ofer had a commercial interest in a competitor.’ Despite weeks of torrid headlines and heated Commons exchanges concerning Mr Jenrick, No 10 is continuing to stand by the embattled Minister.
It is understood Mr Desmond (pictured) has attended a number of Tory party fundraisers and Downing Street drinks receptions in the last year
In an interview with the MoS, Boris Johnson insisted Mr Jenrick’s job was safe. He also swerved questions about his own relationship with Mr Desmond after the MoS last week revealed pictures of the pair hugging.
Asked how many times he had met the developer since becoming PM, Mr Johnson replied: ‘I can certainly say that he hasn’t raised the issue with me at all.’ Asked if Mr Desmond had texted him about Westferry, Mr Johnson firmly said: ‘No.’
It is understood Mr Desmond has attended a number of Tory party fundraisers and Downing Street drinks receptions in the last year.
Last night, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities Steve Reed said Mr Jenrick ‘has new and very serious questions to answer’.
He called for Mr Jenrick to return to the Commons and give a ‘full and frank explanation of his behaviour in this sordid affair’.
Robert Jenrick faces further planning headache back home as his constituents accuse him of failing to protect green spaces
By Jacina Taylor for the Mail on Sunday
Robert Jenrick’s planning headaches won’t disappear when he leaves Whitehall and returns to his Nottinghamshire constituency, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Campaigners in Newark have accused the Housing Minister of failing to protect their green spaces from developers – and largely ignoring their requests for help.
Residents are angry about several schemes including the decision by Newark and Sherwood District Council to grant planning permission to a company it owns to build nine luxury homes on a popular playing field.
Paul Baggaley, Secretary of the Newark Sports Association, said Mr Jenrick’s response to letters of concern had been inadequate.
‘It seems extraordinary to us – Robert Jenrick’s constituents – that people like Richard Desmond can get access to our MP, but we cannot,’ he said.
Campaigners in Newark have accused the Housing Minister Robert Jenrick (pictured) of failing to protect their green spaces from developers – and largely ignoring their requests for help
‘It seems to me that he is open to being lobbied by Tory party donors, but he is not open to being lobbied by people who live and breathe the air in his own constituency.’
Locals were spurred into action by Mark Spencer, the Tory MP in the neighbouring Sherwood constituency, who wrote about the importance of protecting green spaces in a local newspaper and urged residents to ‘be active’ about the issue by ‘getting in touch with your local MP’.
Ironically, Mr Jenrick has enthused about the importance of parks during the coronavirus crisis, encouraging councils to give people access to green spaces and saying: ‘People need parks.’
But Mr Baggaley suggested his MP was guilty of double standards. ‘Our requests to have a meeting with him… have been met with a stony silence,’ he said.
Locals were spurred into action by Mark Spencer (pictured), the Tory MP in the neighbouring Sherwood constituency, who wrote about the importance of protecting green spaces in a local newspaper and urged residents to ‘be active’ about the issue by ‘getting in touch with your local MP’
‘Local residents aren’t against building new homes, but we are against building on existing parks and playing fields.’
The Mail on Sunday is calling on Ministers to protect Britain’s green spaces from developers. Following our campaign, the Government last year pledged £13 million to help improve Britain’s parks.
Newark and Sherwood District Council did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for Mr Jenrick said he is ‘a committed local MP who always makes time for the issues that are important to his constituents’, adding that it’s a local council matter.
‘As Secretary of State, he cannot have Ministerial involvement in any Government decision on it, but protecting green spaces and parks in Newark and across the country is one of his priorities.’
Minister whose wealthy wife ‘indulges his little hobby of being an MP’: How Robert Jenrick achieved his teenage dream of being a millionaire MP… but it’s hotshot lawyer Michal Berkner who ‘wears the trousers’
By Harry Cole, James Heale and Abul Taher for the Mail on Sunday
At the age of 19, rosy- cheeked Robert Jenrick knew his life would be a success. In an interview with Cambridge student magazine Varsity in 2001, the history undergraduate was asked what he would like to be in ten years’ time.
Jenrick, with a quiff and a born-to-rule demeanour, replied: ‘A millionaire businessman fighting my first election to Parliament.’
He was soon on the way – standing as a ‘no-hope’ Tory for the constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme in 2010 after a stint as a corporate lawyer and a brief foray into the top end of the antiques world.
Within nine years of that interview, he was a politician with a multi-million-pound property empire, albeit with a little help from his hot-shot lawyer wife.
FAMILY ASSETS: Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s grand country manor house north of Hereford
The student newspaper verdict of the self-described ‘driven, political, cultured’ Tory boy was that he ‘would treat you to a nice meal but you can’t help feeling there’s something hidden behind it all’.
Prophetic words perhaps in light of the now Housing Secretary’s infamous Tory dinner with billionaire developer Richard Desmond that left him open to a ‘cash-for-favours row’ and has his nascent Cabinet career in jeopardy.
Mr Jenrick first piqued Westminster’s attention at the 2014 Newark by-election when he overcame Nigel Farage, who was at the height of his swagger, in a battle almost as vicious as the town’s Royalist routing of the Roundheads in 1644.
The newest and youngest addition to the Tory benches was quickly tipped for big things. The only blemish on an otherwise faultless campaign was a whiff of privilege around why he formed a limited company to renovate the Pimlico townhouse on the exclusive Vincent Square that he purchased for £2,550,000 in 2013.
Suggestions this was perhaps a vehicle to reclaim VAT on the £850,000 worth of work were angrily denied. And in another prophetic warning, it later emerged that an extension to the house was blocked thrice by planning officials, before the intervention of the local Tory council.
EXCLUSIVE ADDRESS: Robert Jenrick’s £2.55m townhouse in Pimlico
The townhouse, less than a mile from the Commons, is registered in both Mr Jenrick’s name and that of his wife, Michal Berkner.
Ms Berkner, nine years older than her husband, is thought to be the main breadwinner in the household. The pair met at Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom – a New York law firm which has done work for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, including Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich.
Ms Berkner is now a partner at American law firm Cooley, where she leads cross-border mergers and acquisitions and works alongside a ‘high-profile client base.’ One Newark constituent told the Conservative Home website this week: ‘It’s perfectly clear who wears the trousers and it isn’t him. She indulges his little hobby of being an MP.’
However, Mr Jenrick’s career on the backbenchers quickly became more than a hobby. Despatched to the Treasury by Theresa May – a traditional nursery for rising stars – Jenrick was an early backer of Boris Johnson in last year’s Tory leadership election.
And his loyalty was rewarded with a plum role at Housing, making him the first millennial Cabinet Minister at the age of 37. A strong Commons performer, and a ‘steady pair of hands’ on broadcast appearances, Mr Jenrick quickly become one of the few Cabinet Ministers allowed into the current administration’s ‘circle of trust’ to represent the Government on TV and radio. Jenrick was also a regular feature at coronavirus press conferences, with No 10 believing he ‘has had a good Covid-19 war’.
SOLID INVESTMENT: His wife Michal’s rented out flat in Marylebone
His only blip was a hotly disputed trip to visit his parents at the height of lockdown.
Insisting that he was delivering medicines to his shielding family, the episode put the spotlight on the Housing Secretary’s other million-pound house 40 miles away from his parents in neighbouring Herefordshire.
The country pad – which he also jointly owns with his wife – is one of the grandest manor houses in England. His wife also owns a flat in London that is rented out, and Mr Jenrick rents a £2,000 per month house in his Nottinghamshire constituency, despite promising in 2014 to buy in the area. ‘The Four Houses Secretary’ has become a favourite quip by Labour MPs.
No 10 continues to throw a protective arm around one of their favourites, but there was another note of warning in Mr Jenrick’s student interview. The teenage undergraduate claimed ex-Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon was his political inspiration. It was Winston Churchill who tartly remarked of Curzon’s career: ‘The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead.’ Will the same be said of Robert Jenrick?