The foreign secretary has evaded answering questions on the latest ‘sleaze’ allegations surrounding Boris Johnson to hit the Conservative Party.
James Cleverly was asked about a claim that the BBC chairman Richard Sharp helped the former prime minister arrange a guarantee on a loan of up to £800,000, weeks before he was then recommended for the job by Mr Johnson.
Mr Cleverly admitted he had not tried to contact the ex-PM to seek clarity on the situation today, telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “You’re the journalist not me.”
Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, criticised this response, tweeting: “We’re all briefed before going on the media. Either he deliberately didn’t ask the questions or deliberately wasn’t told the answers.”
Labour has reported Mr Johnson to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards following the report in the Sunday Times, which his spokesperson denied as “rubbish”.
Lord Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service, told Sky News there should be an independent investigation into the claims – either through a parliamentary select committee or by the prime minister’s new ethics adviser.
“There’s plenty of routes where this could be examined, and the facts completely established,” he said.
It comes as the former prime minister has been spotted in Ukraine this morning, visiting Bucha and the other suburbs of Kyiv.
Asked earlier if the story regarding the loan was true, Mr Cleverly said: “Well, I’ve not had a conversation with either of those parties about that situation.”
However, he insisted that, as far as he can see, Mr Sharp’s appointment as BBC chair was made on his merits.
“I have met with Richard, we discussed the (BBC) World Service, he struck me as an incredibly competent, experienced, thoughtful individual. I can see exactly why he has the attributes, both personal, professional, to be the chair of the BBC.
“So, as far as I can see, his appointment was made on those merits.”
Mr Cleverly also evaded questions over Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, saying: “I don’t know any more detail than is in his public statement.”
Questions have swirled following an article in The Sun on Sunday, which claimed a seven-figure payment was made by Mr Zahawi to end a dispute with the taxman “after scrutiny of his family’s financial affairs”.
On Saturday night, the cabinet minister and Tory party chairman admitted he made an error but insisted this was “careless and not deliberate”.
However, he did not disclose the size of the settlement – reported to be an estimated £4.8m including a 30% penalty – or confirm whether he paid a fine.
Mr Cleverly was asked to shed light on this, and whether Mr Zahawi negotiated his tax settlement with HMRC while he was serving as chancellor in the closing days of the Johnson administration, or what Rishi Sunak knew when he appointed him party chairman.
“I’m not an investigator,” Mr Cleverly said when it was put to him that he was there to speak on behalf of the government.
Pat McFadden, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, warned the stories about Mr Johnson and Mr Zahawi were damaging public trust in politicians and that is “really corrosive to governance”.
He told Sophy Ridge: “It’s very easy for the public to conclude that all politicians are the same and in it for themselves.
“I think with the Boris Johnson stuff, he almost relies on that level of cynicism so that people conclude, no scandal matters, nothing matters because that’s what they’re all like anyway.”
Conservatives ‘taking public for fools’
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour Party chair, said: “James Cleverly’s excuses and refusal to answer questions over Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs and Boris Johnson’s murky deals shows the Conservatives are taking the public for fools.”
She said “serious questions” remain for Rishi Sunak, including what the prime minister “knows about these scandals”.
“Labour’s genuinely independent Integrity and Ethics Commission will restore standards in public life after years of Conservative sleaze,” she said.
A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC plays no role in the recruitment of the chair and any questions are a matter for the government.”
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “Richard Sharp has never given any financial advice to Boris Johnson, nor has Mr Johnson sought any financial advice from him. There has never been any remuneration or compensation to Mr Sharp from Boris Johnson for this or any other service.
“Mr Johnson did indeed have dinner with Mr Sharp, whom he has known for almost 20 years, and with his cousin. So what? Big deal.
“All Mr Johnson’s financial arrangements have been properly declared and registered on the advice of officials.”