Following Nadeem Zahavi’s tax scandal, the resignation of Gavin Williamson amid claims he threatened staff, and the ongoing investigation into bullying allegations against Dominic Raab, the Prime Minister faces yet another damning headline about government “sleaze”.
Conservative MPs, who backed Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign on a platform of “professionalism, integrity and accountability”, will look dimly at the drip-drip of stories surrounding the conduct of BBC chair and Boris Johnson-appointed Richard Sharpe.
Richard Sharp is fighting to keep his much-coveted position, with allegations swirling that he failed to disclose his role in an £800,000 loan to then-prime minister Johnson. Sharpe, 67, a former banker at Goldman Sachs, is said to have linked Johnson to Sam Blythe, a distant cousin who later served as the prime minister’s loan guarantor.
The story involved key political figures, including Johnson who had appointed Sharp as BBC Chair, and current Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who was at the center of discussions with the then Prime Minister about how he could secure a loan. Sharp is said to have linked Blythe, the nation’s most senior civil servant, to the case.
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For his part, Johnson denied that Sharp ever gave him financial advice, dismissing the story as “a load of complete nonsense” in late January. Sharp proved similarly dismissive, telling the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee that he “knew nothing about [Johnson’s] Personal Financial Matters”, while lamenting that the BBC had been embarrassed as a result.
But a damning report by a cross-party group of MPs published on Sunday shows Mr Sharp’s future currently hangs in the balance. The DCMS committee, the same cross-party group that questioned Sharp earlier in February and advised on his appointment in 2021, found a “significant error of judgement” in facilitating an £800,000 loan guarantee for Johnson.
Damian Green, Conservative MP and acting chairman of the committee, expressed frustration that MPs considering Sharpe’s suitability were “not fully informed”.
This view was echoed by Labor Deputy Leader Angela Rayner last week, who said BBC Radio FourIts “Today” program which Sharp “clearly brought the BBC into disrepute” and had “serious questions” to answer. Shadow Leveling Secretary Lisa Nandy Labor has since stepped up its criticism, saying on Sunday that Sharpe’s position was becoming “increasingly unstable” in the wake of the inquiry.
It is worth noting that there is not a complete consensus in British politics about Sharp’s future. Lord Vaizey, a former culture minister, argued that the BBC chair’s actions were not “capital offences”. she said BBC Radio 4 That: “The report did not say he should resign. To say Richard Sharp arranged a loan for Boris Johnson is a real stretch.”
The Sharp story is currently the subject of an investigation by senior counsel Adam Hepinstall KC, at the request of Commissioner for Public Appointments William Shawcross. If Heppinstall’s inquiry, which is expected to report soon, reaches the same conclusion as that reached by the DCMS committee, BBC board members could take a similarly dim view of whether Mr Sharpe can stay on.
According to a report freedomThe BBC board, on which Mr Sharp sits, will decide on the chair’s future once the Hepsinstall inquiry is completed.
Right now, it’s unclear how big a role the prime minister will play in determining whether he can continue in the role. But privately, Sunak is probably hoping that Sharpe can still go quietly on his terms – without drawing accusations of coziness at the top of British society.
A legacy of Johnson’s dirty legacy or not, the Sharpe story now risks embroiling the sage Sunak, with Cabinet Secretary Simon Case considered at the center and the Conservative Party notably exposed to the “sleaze” issue. As things stand, it’s not easy to see how Sunak could make bad headlines disappear — short of a decisive intervention in itself.