Downing Street Spends £2.6m On Revamp For White House-Style Press Briefings

Labour have questioned the government's priorities, describing the renovations as a "vanity project".

Downing Street has spent more than £2.6 million on refurbishments to hold White House-style press briefings, it has emerged.

The cost of the renovations for the televised question and answer sessions with journalists was revealed as Boris Johnson faces pressure over the funding of a separate revamp to his official residence.

Labour questioned the PM’s priorities for shelling out millions on “vanity projects” while “picking the pockets” of NHS workers, amid growing anger at the government’s proposed pay rise for health staff of just 1%.

An extensive overhaul in No. 9 Downing Street began last year as the government announced the plans to hold the televised briefings, with their launch long delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to a freedom of information (FoI) request submitted by the PA news agency, the Cabinet Office on Friday issued a breakdown of the costs totalling £2,607,767.67, largely excluding VAT.

The department said funds have been spent to allow daily broadcasting by news organisations within the Grade I-listed building.

“This will necessarily require one-off capital works, including audio-visual equipment, internet infrastructure, electrical works and lighting,” the response said.

“This spending is in the public interest as the new broadcasting of lobby briefings will increase public accountability and transparency about the work of this government now and in the future.

“Such spending on maintenance and technical facilities reflects that 9 Downing Street (the Privy Council Office) is a Grade I-listed building.”

Opposition MPs seized on the figure to criticise the government’s recommendation of a 1% pay rise for NHS workers despite the unprecedented pressure they suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

As nurses considered taking industrial action, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “It would take around 100 years for a newly qualified nurse to get paid this kind of money.

“It sums up Boris Johnson’s warped priorities that he can find millions for vanity projects, while picking the pockets of NHS workers.”

Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper added: “This is nothing more than an expensive vanity project and is just more evidence that this government’s priority is spin, not substance.

“The prime minister himself said that he ‘owed his life’ to Covid doctors and nurses but now he’s happy to see frontline nurses take a real-terms pay cut, whilst he gets a flashy new TV studio – the Prime Minister should hang his head in shame.”

The disclosure came as the PM faced pressure over the refurbishment of his official flat above No. 11 overseen by his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.

With costs reported to be spiralling, Downing Street refused to deny that Johnson was considering setting up a charity to pay for the works to the flat.

The move raised concerns of possible conflicts of interest, offering a potential back door to providing a financial benefit to the PM.

The televised briefings were said to be the brainchild of Johnson’s former adviser Lee Cain, but he reportedly disagreed with the PM’s choice of former journalist Allegra Stratton as press secretary to lead the briefings as a government spokesperson.

Cain later left Downing Street, along with former Vote Leave colleague Dominic Cummings, as a behind-the-scenes power struggle within No 10 spilled out into the open.

An advert said the salary for the press secretary role would be based on experience, but reports suggested the taxpayer-funded post would pay around £100,000 a year.

The FoI response, which was delayed by several weeks as officials decided whether the disclosure was in the public interest, included £1,848,695.12 for the “main works”.

Other costs included £198,023.75 on “long lead items”, and £33,394.63 on broadband equipment.

In January No. 10 said the daily broadcasts were being delayed as ministers planned to hold regular press conferences during the lockdown.

Lobby correspondents, the political reporters based in parliament, currently have daily briefings with the PM’s official spokesman, or his deputy – both civil servants.

But under proposals set out in July, an afternoon session will be filmed at 9 Downing Street, led by Stratton.

As a politically appointed special adviser, rather than an impartial civil servant, she will be able to take aim at opponents as well as defend the government’s actions.