Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is facing fresh questions from Labour after the release of documents relating to a controversial planning decision.
Mr Jenrick released the papers to hit back at Labour allegations of “cash for favours”, saying they would kill off the party’s “wild allegations”.
They relate to a decision to grant planning permission to a developer who later gave money to the Tory Party.
But Labour said Mr Jenrick must clear up “discrepancies” in his account.
In a point of order in the Commons following the documents’ release, Labour’s Steve Reed said: “There appear to be significant discrepancies between what the secretary of state told the house and what is in the documents.
“He did not immediately notify officials following his dinner with the applicant Richard Desmond, that rather than closing discussion down with the developer as the secretary of state implies, he instead initiated contact with him the next day by text.
“And the letters confirm that he rushed through the decisions deliberately to help the developer avoid a £30m to £50m levy payable to Tower Hamlets council.”
But Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, the top civil servant in No 10, said the prime minister “considered the matter closed” following the publication of the documents.
The documents include letters and emails between Mr Jenrick and his officials, and representatives of developer Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell company, as well as the minister’s correspondence with senior MPs.
They detail attempts by Mr Desmond’s representatives to set up a meeting, and a site visit, with Mr Jenrick – something the minister said did not happen, after advice from officials.
The documents also include email discussions between Mr Jenrick’s officials on how to explain his decision to overrule the government’s own planning inspectors to give the go-ahead to the development.
In one document, a civil servant said the secretary of state wanted the development signed off the following day so that Northern and Shell would avoid a new community infrastructure levy.
“On timing, my understanding is that SoS is/was insistent that decision issued this week ie tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL regime.”
Earlier in the Commons, Mr Jenrick took the opposition by surprise by announcing he would publish all “relevant” documents relating to the case.
He said the accusations made against him were “not simply wrong but actually outrageous”, but he admitted “things could and should have been done differently”.
“On reflection, I should have handled the communication differently,” he said.
Labour had tabled a motion seeking to force the government to release all documents relating to the controversy, something the minister had previously refused to do.
Opening a Commons debate on the matter, shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said it had “blown apart” public confidence in the planning system – and the only way to put that right was to publish the papers.
He said the material would kill off “all the wild accusations and the baseless innuendo” coming from the Labour Party.
“This was a decision taken with an open mind on the merits of the case after a thorough decision-making process,” he told MPs.
Mr Jenrick denied claims by Labour’s Toby Perkins that he would not have published the documents without pressure from Labour and that they had been “dragged out of him”.
He said the material had taken time to pull together in response to a call from Labour MP Clive Betts, chairman of the communities and local government select committee.
“Transparency matters, openness matters and settling this matter because I certainly don’t want to be the subject of the innuendo and the false accusations that the Opposition are choosing to peddle,” he said.
He added that it was “not unusual” for ministers to “come to a different conclusion to that of a local authority” and to overrule the government’s planning inspectors.
“I stand by the decision I made. I believe passionately that Britain needs to build houses.”
The row centres around a 1,500 home development at the former Westferry printing works on the Isle of Dogs, in East London.
The developer, former Daily Express owner Richard Desmond, personally gave the Conservative Party £12,000 two weeks after the scheme was approved, in January.
It later emerged Mr Jenrick had sat next to Mr Desmond, and three Northern and Shell executives, at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner in November 2019.
Labour says Mr Jenrick also overruled his advisers to reduce the amount of affordable housing required in the development, potentially saving Mr Desmond a further £106m.
Mr Jenrick’s decision was challenged by Tower Hamlets Council, forcing the secretary of state to back down and say what he did was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.
Councillors asked the High Court to order the government to disclose emails and memos around the deal.
‘Images of development’
Rather than doing this, Mr Jenrick’s lawyers conceded the timing of his decision “would lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility” that he had been biased.
Mr Jenrick said Mr Desmond had tried to raise the scheme with him during the dinner, and had invited him on a site visit, but that he had told the businessman he could not discuss it and declined the site visit, on the advice of his officials.
Mr Desmond told The Sunday Times last weekend that he had shown Mr Jenrick a promotional video for the scheme on his mobile phone during the fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel.
When pressed by the SNP’s communities spokesman David Linden about Mr Desmond’s claims, Mr Jenrick said: “He did bring out his iPhone and show me some images of the development.”
But the minister said he had told Mr Desomond “it was not appropriate to discuss the matter and I couldn’t comment on it”.