Why are MPs questioning the BBC chair on Boris Johnson’s finances?

BBC chair Richard Sharp and former prime minister Boris Johnson (PA)
BBC chair Richard Sharp and former prime minister Boris Johnson (PA)

The House of Commons select committee on digital, culture, media and sport has recalled Richard Sharp, chair of the BBC, to appear before them and answer questions about the evidence he gave in January 2021 on his then-prospective appointment.

Why is the select committee asking Sharp back?

It’s an unusual move, and the committee is not happy that Sharp had not been completely transparent with them about all the circumstances surrounding his appointment. The question is whether Sharp should have volunteered to MPs during their approval hearing the role he had played in introducing Boris Johnson, then prime minister, to someone who could guarantee an £800,000 “credit line” provided by an unnamed benefactor. The guarantor was Sam Blyth, often described as a “multimillionaire Canadian businessman”, and, according to Sharp, an “old friend” of his. Blyth is also a distant cousin of Johnson’s and friend of Stanley Johnson, Boris’s father. Johnson was of course at this time in charge of nominating a government “preferred candidate” for the BBC job: Sharp. (It’s also been reported that Blyth allowed Johnson use of his villa in the Dominican Republic for some R&R after he left Downing Street.)

What’s the issue?

Arguably, the relationship between Johnson, Sharp, Blyth and the unknown provider of the funds to Johnson creates a conflict of interest in the appointment, or a potential or perceived conflict of interest. Or more than one such conflict, if the identity of the person who was lending the money were known (does Sharp know? Does Simon Case, cabinet secretary, know?).

None is ideal, and the official rules require that conflicts of interest be declared in UK public appointments. The standard BBC job application says: “You cannot be considered for a public appointment if you fail to declare any conflict of interest.” The Commons committee also asked for such a declaration (as well as from its own MPs). None was forthcoming from Sharp, though the committee did discuss with him his substantial donations to the Conservative Party.

What did Sharp do?

The exact genesis and who initiated the Sharp-Johnson-Blyth-unknown benefactor connection is not clear. What has been reported is that, in September 2020, Sharp and Blyth met for dinner to discuss Johnson’s need for money to fund his lifestyle. After that there was a further conversation between Sharp and Blyth by telephone.

It is also undisputed that Sharp met the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Simon Case, on 4 December 2020 to discuss the matter. The meeting was unminuted. It may be that Johnson suggested Sharp see Case to clear matters.

Case then (on 7 December) commissioned the Cabinet Office Propriety and Ethics Team (PET) to prepare advice. This was overseen by Case’s deputy and head of the PET, Helen MacNamara. The advice was essentially for Johnson and for Sharp.

Then what?

At some point thereafter Johnson was advised not to discuss money with Sharp, and Sharp was advised to stay away from Johnson’s personal affairs.

The appointment of Sharp as chair of the BBC came on 6 January 2021, and he appeared before the DCMS Committee on the 14th.

On 7 February 2021, Johnson’s credit facility from an unknown figure was finalised and confidentially declared in the register of ministerial interests. According to deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner, officials – presumably Case – felt that disclosing it to the electorate was inappropriate.

However, at some point before the loan was finalised and before Sharp was formally appointed, Johnson, Sharp and Blyth met for dinner at Chequers. It appears red wine and chop suey was consumed. Despite the personnel involved, Sharp and Johnson maintain the credit facility was not discussed.

What about Blyth?

Reportedly, the Cabinet Office PET staff were unaware that, around the time of the credit facility being prepared, Blyth himself was in the running for another plum public sector job: chief executive of the British Council. Johnson’s spokesperson says he didn’t know about Blyth and this role.

What does Sharp say?

He states that he was appointed on merit. He also claims there was never any relevant conflict of interest to declare to the BBC or to the DCMS Committee because there was no conflict of interest – and the cabinet secretary had told him so: “Having had a discussion with the cabinet secretary about avoiding a conflict – and the perception of conflict – I felt comfortable – and I still feel – there was no conflict.

“At that stage what I was seeking to do was to ensure the process was followed exactly by the book. The process hadn’t started, of any kind, in terms of any support that Sam [Blyth] was going to provide to the prime minister.”

As to why he himself went to see Case, rather than Blyth, Sharp explains he did so because he was at that point working in Downing Street at the time as an economic adviser on the pandemic. He’d been invited to do by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as an experienced financier. Sunak had once worked for Sharp at Goldman Sachs.

“With the benefit of hindsight, particularly at that time, I might have said ‘do it yourself’ but I was working in Downing Street at the time.”

Of course, the fact that Case told Sharp there was no conflict of interest doesn’t necessarily mean that was the case, still less that there might be a perceived one if the credit line becomes publicly known – which has indeed come to pass.

A cynic might contend that it was convenient for all concerned for Case and those who worked for him to simply rule there was no conflict of interest. Whether Case further advised Sharp that he therefore had no need to release the information to the BBC or parliament is something the DCMS committee might wish to pursue.

Sharp also insists he was not involved in any discussions about Johnson’s finances as such, and that when he met Case to advise him about the unusual arrangement with Blyth, Case advised him that he should play no further part in those negotiations.

What does Johnson say?

Much the same, adding that Sharp “knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for 100 per cent ding-dang sure”. On the Chequers dinner attended by Johnson, Sharp and Blyth, Johnson’s spokesperson says: “So what? Big deal.”

What happens next?

There are three inquiries going on simultaneously, which is embarrassing for the government. As well as the DCMS select committee, Sharp himself has requested a BBC internal investigation, and the commissioner for public appointments, William Shawcross, launched his own inquiry. However, in a sign of the times, Shawcross has had to recuse himself from the proceedings because he knows Sharp, and his daughter is head of policy for Sunak.

Meanwhile, the chair of the DCMS select committee, Julian Knight, has stood down from the chairmanship of the committee while allegations about his personal behaviour are investigated. Knight has been replaced by an acting chair, Damian Green, who himself had to resign from the May government in 2017 after various allegations about his personal behaviour came to light.

Anyone else tangled up?

Not exactly, just Nadhim Zahawi. In a curious postscript, Zahawi, the education secretary in the Truss government, met Blyth, who had a lifelong interest in education, at the Conservative Party conference in October 2021. Blyth made his money in the travel industry, before founding a private schools network in Canada.

There is no suggestion that their conversation was planned, or that Zahawi knew about the loan agreement when he met Blyth. Blyth explained that “I didn’t seek out a meeting with the education minister, although I did meet him in passing. Boris Johnson knew nothing about this incidental meeting before, during or afterwards.” A spokesperson for Zahawi added: “Mr Zahawi was introduced to Mr Blyth during a brush-by at party conference. As education secretary, many people interested in education policy were interested in talking to him.”

Students of the British class system may wish to note that Sharp, Johnson, Sunak, Green and Case all attended the University of Oxford, mostly to study philosophy, politics and economics. Blyth went to Cambridge.