After the scandal over Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, Gavin Williamson’s resignation amid claims he threatened staff, and the ongoing investigation into bullying allegations against Dominic Raab, the prime minister is facing yet another round of damning headlines on government “sleaze”.
Conservative MPs, who backed Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign on a platform of “professionalism, integrity and accountability”, will be among those looking dimly upon the drip-drip of stories surrounding the conduct of BBC chair and Boris Johnson-appointee Richard Sharp.
Richard Sharp is battling to hold on to his much-coveted position, with accusations swirling that he failed to reveal his role in teeing up a £800,000 loan for then-PM Johnson. Sharp, 67, a former banker at Goldman Sachs, is said to have connected Johnson with Sam Blyth, a distant cousin, who subsequently acted as the PM’s loan guarantor.
The saga implicates key political figures, including Johnson who appointed Sharp as BBC chair, and current cabinet secretary Simon Case, who was at the centre of discussions with the then-PM on how he might secure a loan. Sharp is said to have connected Blyth with Case, the country’s most senior civil servant.
For his part, Johnson has denied that Sharp ever gave him financial advice, dismissing the story as “a load of complete nonsense” in late January. Sharp has proved similarly dismissive, telling the commons digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee that he knew “nothing about [Johnson’s] personal financial affairs”, while expressing regret that the BBC was embarrassed as a result.
But a damning report by a cross-party group of MPs published on Sunday shows that Mr Sharp’s future is currently hanging by a thread. The DCMS committee, the same cross-party group who questioned Sharp in early February and advised on his appointment in 2021, found “significant errors 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 Sharp’s suitability were “not in full possession of the facts”.
This view was echoed by Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner last week, who told BBC Radio Four‘s “Today” programme that Sharp had “clearly brought the BBC into disrepute” and had “serious questions” to answer. Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy has since stepped up Labour’s criticism, saying on Sunday that Sharp’s position is becoming “increasingly untenable” in the wake of the findings.
It is worth noting that there is not an outright consensus in British politics on Sharp’s future. Lord Vaizey, a former culture minister, has argued that the BBC Chair’s actions are not a “hanging offence”. He told BBC Radio 4 that: “The report doesn’t say he should resign. It is really stretching it to say Richard Sharp arranged a loan for Boris Johnson.”
The Sharp saga is currently the subject of an investigation by senior lawyer Adam Heppinstall KC, on request of William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments. If Heppinstall’s investigation, which is expected to report soon, reaches the same conclusion as that reached by the DCMS committee, then members of the BBC board are likely to take a similarly dim view on whether Mr Sharp can stay in post.
According to a report The Independent, the BBC board, upon which Mr Sharp sits, will make a decision on their chair’s future once Heppinstall’s investigation concludes.
A legacy of Johnson’s messy legacy on standards or not, the Sharp saga now risks implicating Rishi Sunak, with cabinet secretary Simon Case deemed to be at the centre of affairs and the Conservative party significantly exposed on matters of “sleaze”. As things stand, it’s not easy to see how Sunak can make the bad headlines disappear — short of a decisive intervention himself.