What is the point of Oliver Dowden?

Politics is a cruel business

Oliver Dowden has been overlooked. Rishi reshuffled but left his fixer out of the mix. Our MP remains Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Woke-Finder General and head of the government’s apparently entirely inactive (possibly fictitious?) Strikes Taskforce but is further than ever from a big job.

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden still ready for action

And we promise we’ll stop going on about the Strikes Taskforce at some point. You’re bored hearing that it hasn’t done anything yet. We’ve got half a dozen Google alerts running in case it comes back to life with a jolt. You’d think it would be a pretty busy taskforce about now, what with all the strikes, but apparently they’re still in the barracks, waiting for their orders.

Anyway, the Sunak reshuffle wasn’t a big one – most ministers stayed in place – but experts say it’s going to have a dramatic effect on the ‘machinery of government’ and that it will cost over £100M to implement the restructure of the business and culture ministries. There’s also an entirely new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, to be led by Grant Shapps, responsible for boosting Britain’s energy supplies and the transition away from fossil fuels.

Some are surprised the Prime Minister didn’t take the opportunity to advance some of the loyalists who helped get him elected, though. It must be nerve-wracking for a second-tier figure like Dowden, scrabbling for relevance among the big beasts, to see members of the same 2015 Parliamentary entry whizzing past him and taking up full cabinet positions – Lucy Frazer just leapfrogged into the Culture role that Dowden himself was removed from by Boris Johnson in 2021.

The Tory Party may not have a conscience but it definitely has an id – and he is called Lee Anderson. That Anderson is getting closer to one of Dowden’s other previous jobs – Chairman of the Party – must also be causing dyspepsia in the Dowden household.

Meanwhile, one of Dowden’s decisions from back when he was still Culture Secretary, has come back to haunt him – although he’s been all ‘nothing to do with me, guv‘ since the story broke.

Richard Sharp, businessman and Chairman of the BBC
Richard Sharp

Nobody outside London knew anything about Richard Sharp until he was shoved into the role of Chairman of the BBC in 2021. He is, though, evidently a genius. A cast-iron financial savant – and from humble beginnings. His public school was tragically outside the top tier but through sheer grit he managed to get accepted at Oxford and completed a degree in PPE nonetheless. He went on to make hundreds of millions of pounds from moving money around in ways we don’t pretend to understand in the City (this 20-year-old article estimates his wealth at £125M). When Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, Sharp was an adviser.

So it’s bewildering that a man of his calibre would somehow manage to get himself mixed up in Boris Johnson’s personal financial affairs. Apparently, instead of saying “sod off, Boris, I’d rather stick my head in a wasps’ nest.” or just blocking his number, Sharp ignored all the red flags and offered to hook Johnson up with another millionaire who said he’d guarantee a loan for the PM.

The loan, we’re told, came off, and Johnson trousered a flexible sum of up to £800,000 (we don’t know who actually lent him the money, how much he drew down in the end or whether he’s paid any of it back yet).

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

This is where it gets complicated. At this point, Sharp was on the fast track for the BBC job – Johnson had announced he was the preferred candidate and insiders were saying it was a done deal – so it occured to Sharp that his proximity to the lethal spinning blade of the Prime Minister’s private life might cause him some difficulties when it came to the interview. We assume Oliver Dowden knew nothing about the festival of stupidity and venality going on in secret around him, although he was nominally the appointing minister (and his name is at the bottom of the appointment letter).

A wine fridge that was kept in an office at number 10 Downing Street during the pandemic
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case

Sharp decided to involve a civil servant. He chose Simon “Partygate” Case, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service. And – guess what – Case said the loan was cool and that Johnson wouldn’t even need to declare it because it was “family business”. That last bit is kind of perplexing because although Blyth and Johnson are related, they’re related in roughly the same way Danny Dyer is related to Edward III. They share a great-great-grandfather and apparently Johnson didn’t even know Blyth until Sharp introduced them.

So, bringing this up to date, Richard Sharp has now been censured by the House of Commons Culture select committee – ‘significant errors of judgement’ is the phrase – for not mentioning the loan in his application for the BBC job. He’s issued a non-apology of the “I’m sorry you’re upset” variety and is now hoping that the other inquiry – by a KC appointed by the independent commissioner for public appointments and one that will carry more weight – is kinder to him.

Job done

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.

Richard Sharp, Chairman of the BBC
Richard Sharp, once Rishi Sunak’s boss, now Chairman of the BBC

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.