Whatsapp messages released on Thursday showed the prime minister discussed the proposal with Lord Brownlow at the same time as requesting his help with the £112,000 revamp of his official residence.
Johnson was forced to issue a “humble and sincere apology” to his standards adviser, Lord Geidt, after he failed to inform him of the exchange with Lord Brownlow when he carried out an investigation into the funding of work last year, saying he didn’t recall the messages and that they were on an old phone.
Referring to the messages, Thornberry said: “At the same time as they’re discussing money, they’re discussing a pet project. Now I’m sorry, but these two things go hand-in-hand.
She continued: “We need to look at the fact that the prime minister has said one thing to one investigator and then said ‘oh my goodness it’s on my other phone I completely forgot that it had been on my other phone and I had forgotten that I had ever spoken to Lord Brownlow about the possibility of…’”
Host Krishnan Guru-Murthy interjected to ask if she believed Boris Johnson when he said he forgot this exchange.
Thornberry said: “I don’t believe him… I do not believe that he is a truthful man… and I don’t think when he’s in a corner he’s going to tell us the truth. He may say that he humbly apologises, but that’s not good enough is it?”
She was then asked if she has confidence in Lord Geidt. Responding, she said: “I think really what I think about Lord Geidt is that he is a good man, he’s a decent man, and he wants to believe the best in people, and I understand that.
“But quite frankly I think that he’s wrong when it comes to this government.
“I think that he may be hoping, thinking, that when he’s told things people are telling him the truth… but when you are dealing with this prime minister and this government you should not be assuming that they are telling you the truth when they are in a corner because they don’t tell the truth, they will do anything they can to wiggle out of their responsibilities.”
Downing Street said the proposal for a “Great Exhibition 2.0” was not taken forward although the government is going ahead with Festival UK which was first announced in 2018.
But ministerial records show that just two months after Johnson’s exchanges with Lord Brownlow, the peer attended a meeting with the then culture secretary Oliver Dowden to discuss his Great Exhibition 2.0 proposal.
Thornberry’s Labour colleague Angela Rayner also spoke out, remarking: “It appears that Lord Brownlow had access to the prime minister and culture secretary because he was paying for his luxury flat renovations.
“It is pretty unbelievable that Boris Johnson didn’t know who was paying for his luxury flat renovations.
“If so, that is corruption plain and simple. No-one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals. Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer.”
In a statement to PA addressing the latest scandal, a No 10 spokesman said: “All prime ministers and ministers have proposals put to them at various points and ministers also meet stakeholders regularly as part of their engagement on an array of issues.
“In line with normal practice, this idea was referred to the relevant department, considered and ultimately not taken forward by the Government.
“The Government is taking forward Festival UK this year, which was confirmed in 2018, re-affirmed in the 2019 manifesto and is a cultural programme of events, called ‘Unboxed’, on arts, design and technology which will span the whole of the UK.”