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7 February 2023

Richard Sharp reveals how dinner parties rule British politics

The BBC chairman has inadvertently given us a glimpse of a culture of unofficial introductions and handshakes.

By Zoë Grünewald

Three certainties have arisen from the evidence of Richard Sharp, chairman of the BBC, to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee today (Tuesday 7 February).

First, Sharp did introduce the Canadian millionaire Sam Blyth to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, in late 2020 to facilitate some form of financial support for the then prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Second, Sharp told Johnson that he was going to apply for the role of BBC chairman and discussed it with him; he was appointed to the role in January 2021.

Third, Sharp did not feel the need to disclose any of this to the DCMS committee during his pre-appointment hearing that same month.

“Did it not cross your mind to mention this?” the Labour MP Julie Elliott asked Sharp. “Candidly, no,” he replied. “But I can see with the benefit of hindsight that this is a perfectly legitimate issue to raise.”

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Many people will simply not believe that Sharp didn’t realise his relationship with the prime minister could compromise his application to be BBC chairman. Withholding mention of the “introduction” he facilitated between Johnson and Blyth, who then acted as guarantor on a loan of £800,000, looks particularly misleading. Today MPs reminded Sharp that he had been asked several times during the vetting process for the BBC role if there were any conflicts of interest he wished to divulge. He never mentioned the introduction.

Sharp’s defence today was that he doesn’t accept that he did anything that could bring his appointment into disrepute. He told the committee that he was sorry he had embarrassed the BBC, but he had no intention of resigning, and lots of his employees felt he was doing a good job. He explained he had done his due diligence by going to the cabinet secretary about Blyth’s offer, and that his relationship with Johnson was “long-standing” and “professional”. He insisted that “what I did was ensure that due process and propriety was followed”.

Over the last few years, there have been a number of occasions when public contracts and appointments have fallen into the hands of personal friends of MPs and members of the government. Randox was awarded two Covid testing contracts worth nearly £480m that were never open to tender after the former minister Owen Paterson lobbied the government. (Paterson was subsequently suspended for breaching lobbying rules and then resigned.) There has also been scrutiny over the appointments of leaders in the state’s response to the pandemic: Kate Bingham, head of the Vaccines Taskforce, and Dido Harding, head of Test and Trace, were both married to Tory MPs who had served in the government.

More recently it was alleged that the Tory peer Michelle Mone lobbied the government for Covid contracts for a company she was connected to. Mone and her family are said to have received millions of pounds as a result. She denies any wrongdoing.

Sharp’s evidence today will have done little to assuage public fears about this “chumocracy”. Several times while giving evidence he referred to dinner parties and personal events that brought various key players together for vague conversations about government business. Sharp said Blyth’s offer to guarantee the loan to Johnson was first put to him as an “after dinner party comment”. Sharp also mentioned that he met Johnson and Blyth at a dinner party in May to “promote the interests of the BBC” and discuss the BBC license fee settlement.

Perhaps Sharp simply doesn’t recognise of the severity of what he is revealing. Regardless, the committee session did little to assure the public that this government is one of accountability, transparency and integrity, as Rishi Sunak has promised. In fact, Sharp, in articulating his belief that he has done nothing wrong, may well have reaffirmed suspicions that the Conservatives still prefer to operate through unofficial channels and handshakes.

[See also: How many times did Boris Johnson meet Richard Sharp?]

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