A UK junior minister provoked anger after suggesting voters can gain “access” to high-level Tories if they attend party fundraiser events, as calls grow for the housing secretary to quit after being lobbied by a billionaire donor.
During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Thursday, Nadhim Zahawi – a junior business minister – attempted to defend the actions of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick, who has become embroiled in a scandal in recent days.
It concerns a property deal Jenrick sanctioned which helped Richard Desmond – a British billionaire and Tory donor – save millions of pounds, soon after the two sat next to each other at a Conservative fundraiser dinner on November 18, 2019.
Asked why ordinary people are not able to enjoy the same access as rich individuals like Desmond, Zahawi suggested that there’s nothing to stop them from obtaining the privilege.
If people go to a fundraiser in their local area, Doncaster, for the Conservative Party, they’ll be sitting next to MPs, other people in their local authority.
Jenrick is accused of rushing through a deal on a high-rise housing block in East London in January, to help Desmond’s property firm avoid having to pay a community infrastructure levy of £45 million (about $56mn) to Tower Hamlets council in London.
Copies of texts and emails revealed on Wednesday have fueled widespread criticism that Jenrick rammed the deal through to help Desmond save £45m. Shortly after securing the cost-saving deal, Desmond – formerly the owner of the Express news titles and an ex-pornographer – made a personal donation of £12,000 to the Conservative Party – leading to accusations of “cash for favours” being made against the housing minister.
Zahawi’s somewhat brazen defence of his Tory colleague and suggestion that anyone can get similar favours if they should attend the right event, has left many people on social media angry and ostensibly bewildered.
Labour’s deputy leader – Angela Rayner – fumed that “Tory Ministers should not be selling off access to the highest bidder” and claimed Zahawi’s response was proof that it’s one rule for Conservative donors and another for ordinary people.
Jenrick wrote to the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee, stating that he has given a full and factual account of the matter. According to the UK cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Mark Sedwill – who has written to the Labour Party on this issue – “the prime minister [Boris Johnson] considers that the matter is closed.”