Labour will step up the pressure this week on the embattled communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, after it emerged that he viewed a promotional video for a £1bn property development before overruling officials to approve it.
According to a report in the Sunday Times, the property developer Richard Desmond showed Jenrick the video on his phone when the pair sat next to each other at a Conservative party fundraising dinner.
“What I did was I showed him the video,” Desmond told the Sunday Times, adding that Jenrick had watched it for “three or four minutes”, and adding: “It’s quite long, so he got the gist.”
Jenrick subsequently overturned a decision by a local council and the government’s planning inspectorate in order to approve a 500-apartment, 44-storey development at Westferry Printworks, a former printing plan in east London.
Labour will use the opportunity of a three-hour opposition day debate on Wednesday to discuss the controversy.
The shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, is expected to press Jenrick on whether officials asked him to recuse himself from the decision, since viewing the video would appear to constitute lobbying by Desmond, potentially giving rise to a conflict of interest.
It was the prospect of an opposition day debate last week, and the accompanying vote, that helped force Boris Johnson to extend free school meals vouchers over the school summer holidays, after a campaign from the footballer Marcus Rashford.
Jenrick’s move to approve the Westferry development in January came a day before the introduction of the community infrastructure levy, to be used for local education and health projects, which would have cost Desmond’s company at least £40m.
It later emerged the property developer had made a £12,000 donation to the Tory party, two weeks after the planning decision in his favour was made.
When the local council, Tower Hamlets, sought a judicial review of Jenrick’s decision, he conceded the case, admitting he had acted unlawfully – and reversed the decision.
Asked about his contact with Desmond at the fundraising event, Jenrick told MPs last Monday: “The department was fully informed of my attendance at the event. I discussed with my officials that the applicant had raised the matter. I advised the applicant that I was not able to discuss it.” He said he was “inadvertently” seated next to Desmond.
The cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, is examining details of the case provided by Jenrick, but No 10 has denied this amounts to a formal investigation. Downing Street has been pressed on whether the prime minister or any of his team had met Desmond.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, defended his cabinet colleague on Sunday, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Mr Jenrick answered questions for an hour in the House of Commons this week; he’s put out a statement about this which is perfectly reasonable.”
Jenrick declined to answer an urgent question tabled by Reed, sending a junior minister, Paul Scully, in his place: but MPs took the opportunity to quiz him about the issue when he appeared for regular departmental questions last Monday.
A spokesperson for the communities secretary said: “Mr Jenrick and the applicants were put on the same table for the dinner, although Mr Jenrick was not aware of this prior to arriving at the venue. The planning application was raised, but Mr Jenrick said it would not be appropriate to discuss the matter or for him to pass comment on it.”