Shackled by the chairman’s secrets

Published by The i paper (12th February, 2023)

The case of the banker, the BBC and the prime minister’s big loan offers a glimpse behind the scenes of our sleazy political establishment. Richard Sharp, a wealthy financier, helped fix an £800,000 loan for the former PM – and then weeks later was appointed chairman of the BBC. Now we know he failed to reveal his involvement in securing this loan to an appointments panel that was vetting candidates to lead the state broadcaster, prompting a cross-party committee of MPs that was also kept in the dark to condemn “significant errors of judgement” and urging him to “consider the impact his omissions will have on trust in him, the BBC and the public appointments process”.

You might question if a one-time Goldman Sachs banker was really the best person in Britain to oversee the BBC in the first place (alongside former Tory activist Tim Davie, who serves as Director-General), let alone to wonder why the man running our country at the time could not get by on a salary of around £160,000 and needed such a huge loan. Yet such is the depth of cronyism that stains Britain, there were few ripples of concern over the appointment. Sharp’s role as conduit between Johnson and Sam Blyth, the businessman and a distant cousin of the former prime minister, emerged only thanks to its exposure last month by The Sunday Times.

MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee are right to be fiercely critical of Sharp’s failure to mention his involvement in events surrounding the loan when they were considering his suitability for the job. The BBC chairman realised that his actions were sufficiently problematical to tell the Cabinet Secretary he would drop out of the loan discussions. So he was at best stunningly naive, at worst deliberately deceiving people in the appointments process – and either way, he has demonstrated his lack of suitability for such a delicate and influential post. If he does not quit, the precious BBC will be left tainted under a lame duck leader.

Unfortunately the concept of doing the decent thing with resignation seems alien to most modern participants in public life. This scandal follows on quickly from former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi’s desperate efforts to cling on as Tory party chairman despite revelations over his “careless” tax affairs, a reported £4.8m payment to the revenue and intimidating threats to sue those asking questions. There has been a stream of disturbing stories over politically connected people obtaining lucrative contracts during the pandemic scramble for personal protective equipment though use of a VIP fast land where bids were 10 times more likely to be won. Plus the endless drip-drip of dirty foreign money befouling our politics.

A poll last week showed even one-third of Conservative voters see the Tories as the party of sleaze. Certainly Johnson took cronyism to new levels with his arrogant contempt for social and political mores. He even overruled the appointments’ commission to send Peter Cruddas, a disgraced former party treasurer, into the Lords – who bunged another half a million into Tory coffers a few days after taking up his seat. Yet Rishi Sunak made Robert Jenrick a senior minister – although as housing minister he unlawfully expedited a £1bn development for the developer Richard Desmond to a timetable that saved the party donor millions of pounds in local taxes.

Britain does not like to see itself as a corrupt place, despite the constant scandals and cronyism glimpsed again with this latest saga. Johnson insisted in 2021 that: “The UK is not remotely a corrupt country and I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt.” His predecessor David Cameron even warned of the corrosive dangers of lobbying – “We all know how it works… the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way” – and hosted a global anti-corruption summit “to expose, punish and drive out corruption in all walks of life” shortly before he was driven out of office by Brexit. Later it emerged he was pestering former colleagues on behalf of a finance company that could have made him a fortune.

Yet do not be deluded: history shows Labour governments also become soiled by dodgy dealings and murky money. It is to Sir Keir Starmer’s credit that he pledges to scrap the House of Lords to restore trust in politics since it symbolises much wrong with our country through its institutionalisation of corruption and cronyism. Some people dismiss this as an irrelevance given the huge scale of problems confronting the country, although I would suggest it is crucial to clean up our creaking democracy. We can argue over the nature of reform, but not over the need to cut out a cancer in our body politic that allows rich people to buy lifetime seats alongside those inheriting them in parliament.

Yet this move should be just the start. There is a growing perception that corruption is prevalent and government run for purposes of self-perpetuation rather than in the public interest. Two days after Sunak sacked Zahawi, Transparency International published its annual league table on perceptions of global corruption that showed Britain had fallen seven places to 18th. The group warned of “woeful inadequacies” in upholding political integrity. Maybe we need to discuss state funding of politics, an idea I loathe intuitively, alongside a barrage of radical measures to enforce real accountability in politics and the public sector.

The BBC should be investigating scandals and leading such a debate to shore up our democracy. Instead, it is shackled by its chairman’s secrecy over chummy ties to a profligate prime minister. This is not a pretty picture for any of the involved parties – nor for the wider nation.

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