Richard Sharp, Rishi Sunak’s former boss at Goldmans Sachs, resigned this morning as chairman of the BBC after an independent review found he breached the governance code for public appointments.
Whether Sharp resigned before he was asked to step down is not known but the speed with which he handed in his notice has at least avoided any drawn out embarrassing discussions with his former employee, the PM.
In a statement, the 67-year-old Sharp says he will stand down at the end of June to avoid being a “distraction” to the broadcaster and to give time for a replacement to be found.
The report by Adam Heppinstall KC into Sharp’s appointment was ordered by the Commissioner for Public Appointments after the BBC chairman became embroiled in a row over an £800,000 loan guarantee to Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister.
Heppinstall found that Sharp breached the code in two ways. While acting as an adviser in No 10, Sharp had told Johnson he wanted to be BBC chair before formally applying in November 2020. He also spoke to the then Cabinet Secretary the following month, offering to make an introduction to Sam Blyth, a distant cousin of Johnson’s, who had suggested they could “assist” with the ex-PM’s “personal finances.” Sharp has always denied that he helped arrange any loans.
Although the report did not challenge Sharp’s insistence that his mistakes were “inadvertent”, it did find that both issues amounted to a breach of the Governance Code.
Heppinstall said he disagreed with Sharp’s own view that mentioning to Johnson his intention to apply for the chairmanship did not amount to a conflict of interest.
He writes: “It may well have been a reasonable conversation in the context of Mr Sharp’s role as special adviser, but failing to mention it to the panel does amount to a failure to disclose a potential perceived conflict of interest.
“There was a risk that members of the public might form the view that Mr Sharp was informing the Prime Minister of his application because he wanted him to make a recommendation to appoint him.
“They might also perceive that he was putting himself in a position where he might, if appointed, be beholden to the Prime Minister for his support such that his independence from Government was compromised.”
In his statement, Sharp adds: “Mr Heppinstall’s view is that while I did breach the governance code for public appointments, he states that a breach does not necessarily invalidate an appointment.
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“Indeed, I have always maintained the breach was inadvertent and not material, which the facts he lays out substantiate. The Secretary of State has consulted with the BBC Board who support that view. Nevertheless, I have decided that it is right to prioritise the interests of the BBC.”
He goes on to explain that in conversations with the Cabinet Secretary, on December 4 2020, he reminded him of the fact that he was in the BBC appointments process.
“I believed, as a result of that conversation, that I had been removed from any conflict or perception of conflict. I understood this recusal to be absolute. This was my error.
“In my subsequent interview with the Appointments Panel, I wish, with the benefit of hindsight, this potential perceived conflict of interest was something I had considered to mention.”
The PM will be relieved that Sharp has gone gracefully, and he will be remembered positively for having persuaded the government to put more money into funding the World Service.
The two go back decades to when Sunak “fresh out of university” was his financial modeller while working at Goldman Sachs in the early 2000s. Ironically, he also once advised the young banker that he was not suited for the “dirty” business of politics. How the tables have turned for the Brexit-voting Conservative who has over time given more than £400,000 to the party.
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