Labour has called for a formal probe into allegations that the BBC chair helped Boris Johnson secure a private loan shortly before the then prime minister recommended his appointment.
Richard Sharp, the former Goldman Sachs partner who became BBC chair in 2021, has denied wrongdoing, saying he “simply connected” Johnson to the guarantor of a personal credit facility worth up to £800,000.
He added there was “no conflict” of interest to declare during his application process for the BBC role, which was ongoing at the time and involved an independent panel.
Johnson’s spokesperson said the allegations were “rubbish”, stating he neither received nor sought financial advice from Sharp, a donor to the Conservative party who was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s former boss at Goldman Sachs.
The opposition Labour party’s chair Anneliese Dodds has written to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, calling for “an urgent investigation into the facts of this case”, including whether the arrangements were declared properly.
Sharp’s involvement in arranging the loan to Johnson in 2020 to rescue his personal finances, was first reported by the Sunday Times newspaper. The source of the £800,000 credit facility has not been disclosed but it was underwritten by the Canadian businessman Sam Blyth, a distant relative of Johnson.
Blyth raised the idea of acting as a guarantor with Sharp, who then brought the suggestion to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary. Labour have asked for a formal investigation to look into whether Johnson breached parliamentary rules “by asking for an individual to facilitate a guarantee on a loan whom he would later appoint to a senior public role”.
Before the loan was finalised Johnson, Blyth and Sharp gathered at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence, to dine on chop suey, according to the Sunday Times. Johnson’s spokesperson said: “Mr Johnson did indeed have dinner with Mr Sharp, whom he has known for almost 20 years, and with his cousin. So what? Big deal.”
Sharp said: “There is not a conflict when I simply connected, at his request, Mr Blyth with the cabinet secretary and had no further involvement whatsoever.”
The Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team wrote to the prime minister in December 2021 to urge Johnson to avoid engaging with Sharp about his personal finances given the open appointment process, according to the Sunday Times. Sharp was nominated by the culture secretary in January 2022.
The BBC said: “The BBC plays no role in the recruitment of the chair and any questions are a matter for the government.”
Under the BBC charter, the chair is appointed by the King, on recommendation of the government, after a “fair and open competition” that follows the code for public appointments. Candidates are expected to declare conflicts of interest.
The BBC is consulted on the process, job description and required skills, but it plays no role on the selection of an individual. The BBC board has no powers to oust a chair; the appointment can only be terminated by the King on recommendation of the government.
Sunak’s cabinet on Sunday stood behind Sharp’s appointment, dismissing any suggestions or irregularities in the recruitment process.
Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, James Cleverly, foreign secretary, said Sharp had brought a “wealth of experience” to the BBC job.
“That’s why he was appointed to chairmanship of the BBC,” Cleverly said. “I have absolutely no doubt that he was appointed on merit.”
However, Cleverly denied knowing anything about the Sunday Times’ claims beyond what he had read in the story.
On the same programme, Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow finance minister, cited the claims about Johnson’s link to the BBC appointment as one of a series of ethical issues confronting the government.
“It’s going to take an incoming Labour government to clean up this mess, drain the swamp, because frankly it stinks,” Reeves said.