Why Is Boris Johnson At The Centre Of Controversy Again And Why Does It Matter?

The former prime minister is accused of cronyism over the appointment of BBC chairman Richard Sharp.
BBC chairman Richard Sharp and Boris Johnson.
BBC chairman Richard Sharp and Boris Johnson.
House of Commons via PA Wire/PA Images

Months after he left Downing Street in a swirl of scandal, Boris Johnson is at the centre of controversy yet again.

What began as a story about a loan of up to £800,000 he agreed with a distant relative has developed into a crisis at the top of the BBC.

So what is the former prime minister accused of and why does it matter?

Money money money

The Sunday Times first reported last week that Canadian education entrepreneur Sam Blyth had agreed to act as guarantor of a £800,000 line of credit for Johnson while he was still prime minister.

Blyth told the National Post in Canada: “The guarantee that was provided was much less than reported and was pre-approved by the Cabinet Office and Ethics prior to it being put in place.”

The BBC connection

A follow-up story in yesterday’s Sunday Times revealed that Richard Sharp helped to facilitate the arrangement just weeks before he became chairman of the BBC.

The paper reported that Sharp, who has also donated £400,000 to the Conservatives in the past, met with Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, to discuss the loan arrangement.

Sharp also had dinner at Chequers with Blyth and Johnson before the loan was agreed, but all three men deny that the then PM’s financial affairs were discussed.

In an email to BBC staff today, Sharp said his role was merely to “seek an introduction” for Blyth “to the relevant official in government”.

However, acknowledging the affair is a “distraction” for the BBC, and said he was referring his appointment as chairman to the corporation’s nominations committee.

What has Johnson said?

Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson is attempting to bluster his way through the row.

In his first public comments since the story broke, he said: “This is a load of complete nonsense – absolute nonsense.

“Let me just tell you, Richard Sharp is a good and wise man but he knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for 100% ding dang sure.

“This is just another example of the BBC disappearing up its own fundament.”

That last comment suggests Johnson does not fully understand the story, given it was broken by the Sunday Times and not the BBC.

What happens next?

In a further development this afternoon, it emerged that William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, will investigate the decision to make Sharp the BBC chairman.

In a letter to shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell, he said: “The role of the commissioner is to oversee the public appointments process and ensure appointments are made fairly, openly and on merit.

“I intend to review this competition to assure myself and the public that the process was run in compliance with the Government’s governance code for public appointments.”

Powell said: “The BBC chair, Number 10 and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport clearly have questions to answer.

“This probe is welcome news and should shine a light on this appointments process and provide reassurance to the public.”

How bad is it for Rishi Sunak?

Sunak famously promised to lead a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, and while Johnson is no longer around the cabinet table, headlines like this are bad news for the prime minister.

Coming at the same time as Tory party chairman Nadhim Zahawi is embroiled in controversy over his tax affairs, the worry for the PM is that it adds to the impression among voters that the Conservatives are sleaze-ridden and that their time in office is nearly up.

The one silver lining for Sunak, however, is that the Richard Sharp story may give pause for thought to those Tory MPs who would love to see Johnson replace him in Number 10 before the next election.


What's Hot