BBC chairman and the Boris loan has a whiff of the banana republic

Richard Sharp - House of Commons
Richard Sharp - House of Commons

At last year’s Tory conference, I arrived early for a recording of Politics Live and met a genial fellow with a Roman nose and sensible hair. “Are you today’s Conservative MP?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “I’m the chairman of the BBC”.

Who could’ve predicted that five months later, Richard Sharp would be dragged before the culture committee to explain reports that when he was applying for that particular job, he’d helped the then-prime minister, Boris Johnson, to secure a loan? The MPs feel he should’ve declared this at the time.

The line between politics and entertainment has always been thin, as evidenced by the committee members’ own “declaration of interests”. Most of them confessed to having worked for the BBC. It felt like an AA meeting, with the tragic certainty that as soon as they were done pretending they were sober, they’d head for the nearest camera and debase themselves all over again.

Sharp, despite the name, is famous for talking corporate gibberish. On this occasion, though, he was precise. “I have never given the prime minister [financial] advice.”

His story: in September 2020, one Sam Blyth told him he’d heard the PM was in the soup moneywise, and he’d like to help. Dickie said Blyth would need to speak to the Cabinet Office. Sometime later, Sharp indicated to the PM that he’d like the BBC job. Meanwhile, he met the Cabinet Secretary to ask if he’d be happy to chat with Blyth.

Sharp declared nothing, you see, because there was nothing to declare.

Well, that’s good enough for me (a declaration of interest: I’d like to work for the BBC), but not for John Nicolson - who noted that Blyth is not some random member of the public but Boris’s distant cousin. Why couldn’t he go to the PM himself and ask “do you want some cash, cuz?”

“The loan would not have happened, presumably, if you did not play the role that you did?” And once Sharp had sailed through the “nail-biting application process” to chair the BBC, he was “invited to celebrate at Chequers” by - wait for it - a Mr Sam Blyth!

The Scot found it all a bit “banana republic”.

Damian Green pointed out that the Cabinet Secretary wrote to the PM to say “it is important that you no longer ask [Sharp’s] advice about your personal financial matters”. That phrasing is “ambiguous”, said Dickie, “I’ve never given the prime minister advice.” But, said Kevin Brennan, you did “inform” Boris that Blyth wished to help?

“Absolutely,” said Sharp.

Did you tell Johnson that Blyth wanted to “lend him money to support his lifestyle?” “Yes.” And was the “implication” that “he would help him financially?” “Definitely.”

That was the moment of clarity upon which Sharp’s future will perhaps hang, though he otherwise reverted to type by telling us, unprompted, how the BBC works. “We have a unitary board” concerned with “owning the strategy” and “the issues the board deals with”, which include a “framework for assessing”.

This is all “very important”, insisted the chairman, which is what corporate people always say when the subject is anything but. It is the viewers’ cue to go and put the kettle on.