LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a stinging rebuke from his ethics adviser on Thursday over the costly refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment, after the British leader blamed a change of cellphones for his failure to disclose messages about the makeover.
In a polite but scathing letter to Mr. Johnson, Christopher Geidt, who advises Mr. Johnson on ethics in public life, said it was “plainly unsatisfactory” that he was not told of text messages in which Mr. Johnson petitioned a prominent Conservative Party donor to arrange financing for the makeover of his apartment.
While Mr. Geidt said the missing messages did not change his earlier judgment that Mr. Johnson had not violated the ethics code governing his office, he expressed deep disappointment in the prime minister and said the case could undermine public confidence in high public officials.
For Mr. Johnson, the decision spares him the prospect of losing his job because of a breach of the ministerial code. But Mr. Geidt’s harsh words add to the perception of a prime minister who has been clouded by ethics questions since the beginning of his tenure.
“I believe this episode demonstrated insufficient regard or respect for the role of Independent Adviser,” Mr. Geidt wrote in the five-page letter that included the messages between Mr. Johnson and the Conservative donor, David Brownlow, in which the prime minister asked him about financing the refurbishment.
Efforts to reclaim the public’s confidence in cabinet ministers, Mr. Geidt said, had “been placed at risk by the evident failure to meet the very highest standards of disclosure expected in this present case.”
Mr. Johnson offered a “humble and sincere apology,” insisting he had forgotten about the exchange with Mr. Brownlow after he was issued a new cellphone and could no longer access his old device. But he welcomed that Mr. Geidt had not revised his central judgment that there was no direct conflict of interest.
Opposition leaders seized on the letter as proof that Mr. Johnson had not been truthful, and as evidence of a pattern of corrupt behavior.
“Once again, by attempting to hide the truth, Boris Johnson undermines his own office,” the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner, said in a statement. “The Prime Minister’s pathetic excuses will fool no one, and this is just the latest in a long line of sorry episodes.”
Mr. Johnson faces another looming test from a parliamentary inquiry into reports that aides in Downing Street held Christmas parties in 2020 at a time when such gatherings were banned under coronavirus restrictions. The so-called “sleaze factor” has eroded Mr. Johnson’s poll numbers, frayed his ties with his party’s backbenchers, and raised questions about whether he might face an internal leadership challenge.