Boris Johnson’s government has awarded £100,000 of taxpayers’ money to a company that donated to his leadership campaign in order to help it “prepare for Brexit” — despite the firm having already declared itself “Brexit ready”.
Bristol port will receive the six-figure payment to “help their preparations for Brexit on 31 October”, the Department for Transport told BuzzFeed News. It is one of 16 ports across the UK that has received a share of a £10 million funding pot, and the only one in the west of England.
The decision to hand Bristol port a large sum of taxpayer cash will raise conflict-of-interest questions, because just four months ago the Bristol Port Company made a £25,000 donation directly to Johnson ahead of the Conservative party leadership contest.
Johnson then stoked controversy when he endorsed a report calling for a Singapore-style tax-free port at Bristol during his campaign.
The payment will also raise eyebrows because, despite Transport secretary Grant Shapps saying the money is about “ensuring they are ready for Brexit”, the Bristol Port Company has previously insisted it is already “ready” for the UK to come out of the EU.
In a pamphlet published by the Bristol Port Company in January, the port declared itself “Brexit ready”.
The pamphlet outlined how the port “does not foresee experiencing ANY of the delays that are currently being discussed”, stating that it “has the processes, people and resilience to cope, whatever the eventual outcome of Brexit”.
Announcing the funding, the Department for Transport said the money could be spent on container storage. But the Bristol Port Company pamphlet from January said it already had “available land at Avonmouth and Royal Portbury Dock for storage”, giving it a “vast capability” to receive cargo for 90 days.
The Bristol Port Company was formed in 1991 when Terence Mordaunt and David Ord bought the Port of Bristol from Bristol City Council. Mordaunt and Ord are both long-time Conservative donors — the firm also donated £25,000 to Jeremy Hunt’s leadership campaign.
In July, BuzzFeed News reported how First Corporate Shipping, which trades as the Bristol Port Company, had made the donations just weeks before Johnson backed the idea of a tax-free port at Bristol.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for a second Brexit referendum, told BuzzFeed News: “Johnson has serious questions to answer. Why is he handing over taxpayers’ money to people who have donated him money, when the port itself says it is already ‘Brexit ready’?
“With ethical and character questions already swirling around this prime minister, this will only add to the perception that Johnson seems happy to funnel public money to his rich Brexit-backing friends when it suits him.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “The competition awarded £10m to 16 ports across England, with each bid evaluated against a robust criteria to support preparations for Brexit on 31 October. It is complete nonsense to suggest otherwise.”
Downing Street has been approached for comment.