LONDON: Just days after being fined by the police for not wearing a safety belt, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is embroiled in further scandals, this time over allegations of cronyism regarding the appointment of two chairmen: the BBC chairman and the chairman of the Conservative party. Sunak is taking the flak even though both issues began under his predecessor, Boris Johnson.
The appointment of BBC chairman Richard Sharp is being reviewed by Commissioner of Public Appointments William Shawcross, who oversees how public appointments are made. Sharp is accused of helping Johnson get a £800,000 (a little over Rs 8 crore today) loan in 2020, when Johnson was PM and in financial difficulty owing to his divorce bill, childcare costs and the costs of refurbishing his Downing Street flat. Shortly afterwards Sharp was announced as the government’s choice for the £160,000 (about Rs 1.6 crore) per annum role of BBC chairman. Sharp did not declare his assistance to Johnson when applying for the job, to either the appointments panel or the BBC. Revelations in the “Sunday Times” of London led Labour shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell MP to write to Shawcross asking him to investigate the appointment process.
The “Sunday Times” reported that Sharp introduced Sam Blyth, a multimillionaire Canadian businessman and distant cousin of Johnson who had offered to be a guarantor on Johnson’s loan, to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary.
Johnson then recommended Sharp for the BBC role weeks later. The BBC chairman is appointed by the government to uphold the BBC’s neutrality and impartiality.
Johnson has denied any wrongdoing, claiming to Sky News that Sharp knows nothing about his finances. “This is just another example of the BBC disappearing up its own fundament,” he said. Sharp, too, denies he has done anything wrong and says he simply connected people saying there was no conflict of interest.
Sunak is also under pressure over his appointment of Iraqi-origin Nadhim Zahawi to the position of Conservative chairman in October. On Monday Sunak ordered the government’s new independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Laurie Magnus, to judge whether Zahawi breached the ministerial code during a £5 million (Rs 50.3 crore) settlement with HM Revenue & Customs, which is said to have included a £1 million penalty. Sunak maintains he was unaware of Zahawi’s tax issues when he made him chairman. Zahawi is resisting pressure to step down even though he was investigated by HMRC when in the position of chancellor last summer.
MP Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, blamed Sunak, saying he was “failing to deliver the integrity, professionalism and accountability he promised”.
Asked whether Sunak knew that Zahawi had paid a penalty to HMRC when appointing him, the PM’s official spokesman said: “That’s not my understanding.”
It all comes as another blow to Sunak, who is trying to distance himself from the sleaze that engulfed Boris Johnson’s government.