How do you turn a respectable, if old-fashioned, pillar of the post-war liberal establishment into a weak, discredited organ of the state in two years? Ask Oliver Dowden.
To be fair, this isn’t really much to do with our MP, who was at the time Culture Secretary. He just signed the paperwork appointing Tory Party mega-donor Richard Sharp Chairman of the BBC – the choice of BBC Chair is made by the Prime Minister, there’s an ‘appointments panel’ involved and the formal responsibility actually belongs to the monarch.
And this is obviously not a new tactic. It would be wrong to give the Conservative government too much credit here. Packing the boards of state (and quasi-state) organisations with allies is best practice for governments in a hurry everywhere. It’s not even a particularly bad thing – we’ve got a list of people we’d like appointed to the boards of various institutions ourselves (let us know if you’re interested in seeing it, we can meet up at your club).
What’s new and interesting about this government is how closely connected all the players are and how apparently shameless they are about their intentions. The government is not appointing dull technocrats here. They’re appointing ambitious Flashman figures who they hope will briskly transform the institutions they’re inserted into. Sharp is son of an ennobled business titan himself, and a millionaire many times over (it seems almost redundant to add that he was once Rishi Sunak’s boss). He wasn’t put into the BBC to give the books a once-over, he’s meant to be turning the place upside-down. And his appointment was managed in a pretty single-minded way – Boris Johnson made sure everyone knew well in advance that Sharp was the preferred candidate.
Anyway, the story of the £800,000 loan guarantee, broken by The Times, is a complicated, dispiriting mess. We won’t try to summarise it in any detail here (you can read it yourself) but you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s got the grubby fingerprints of the Johnson era all over it. There’s the usual dense web of old friends and top jobs and undeclared relationships.
The phrase “…there is no known precedent of a prime minister selecting an individual [for the BBC job] who was simultaneously helping them with their personal finances.” really jumps out of the article.
The story involves Cabinet Secretary Simon “Partygate” Case (obvs); Sam Blyth, a distant cousin of Boris Johnson (who we learn was chasing a top job at the British Council himself); an enormous loan from an unknown source that the head of the civil service, when consulted, decided didn’t need to be declared. Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ethics who later resigned over another scandal, was also involved.
A nice detail from the Times story involves Johnson, Sharp and Blyth (the man who guaranted the loan) sharing chop suey and wine at Chequers (chop suey?) before the loan was finalised, and a couple of months before Richard Sharp was appointed Chairman of the BBC. We don’t know what they talked about but Sharp says it wasn’t the Prime Minister’s financial difficulties, the loan or the BBC job.
- The web of connections is dense – and goes back a long way. This post from the On London blog connects the dots.