Wait for all the facts before coming to a conclusion, Michael Gove has said, amid reports that Boris Johnson was told to stop asking Richard Sharp for “advice” about his “personal financial matters”, just days before the latter was announced as the new BBC chairman.
According to The Sunday Times, then-prime minister Mr Johnson was warned by officials on December 22 2020 to stop discussing his financial arrangements with Mr Sharp, who was due to be named for the BBC role on January 6 2021.
The former banker had already been facing calls to stand down after it emerged that, in late 2020, he had introduced Sam Blyth to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to discuss whether Mr Blyth, a distant cousin of Mr Johnson whom Mr Sharp has known for more than 40 years, could act as a guarantor for a loan facility for the prime minister.
Mr Sharp previously said he will remain in place, with the BBC chairman due to be grilled on the controversy by MPs next month.
A spokesman for the former prime minister said Mr Sharp has “never given any financial advice to Boris Johnson, nor has Mr Johnson sought any financial advice from him”.
Levelling Up Secretary Mr Gove was pressed on the matter on Sunday morning, as he rejected any suggestion that Mr Johnson is becoming a “liability” to Downing Street.
“I know that, and I’ve seen it happen in the past, that there’s a letter here, a note there, a comment there. It points towards one conclusion. Once you know all the evidence, actually, another conclusion can fairly be drawn,” Mr Gove said.
He admitted that he could “completely recognise how you can produce two pieces of evidence and a conclusion can be drawn”.
But he added: “I know from experience in the past, including when I’ve jumped to conclusions about people and then found that actually I’d been unfair on them, that we just need to see all the facts.”
The Sunday Times, citing a leaked Cabinet Office memo, said guidance was issued by top civil servant Mr Case after Mr Johnson and Mr Sharp sought advice on accepting the £800,000 loan from Mr Blyth.
Mr Johnson reportedly secured the money in February 2021.
The paper quotes advice issued by Mr Case, which stated: “Given the imminent announcement of Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair, it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters.”
Public Appointments Commissioner William Shawcross has already said he plans to investigate Mr Sharp’s appointment as BBC chairman, following the first set of reports last week.
Mr Sharp told BBC News last week that he was “comfortable” with the way the process had been carried out.
Mr Gove said the purpose of Mr Shawcross’s inquiry is to “make sure that everything’s completely kosher”.
“It’s absolutely understandable to think ‘Aha, this plus this equals that’, but my bitter experience is wait until we see all the facts before coming to a definitive conclusion.”
He added: “I think Boris Johnson was a very good prime minister, and I think that he has a lot to contribute to public life in the future.”
The Sunday Times also reported that Mr Blyth had appeared on a Foreign Office list of four recommended candidates during the search for the chief executive of the British Council, with his family ties to Mr Johnson not revealed to senior figures at the council.
Mr Blyth told the paper he ruled himself out on December 7 2020 and did not formally apply.
“I believe my name may have been suggested by civil servants who were trying to identify potential candidates at the search stage of the appointment process,” he said.
A spokesman for the former prime minister said: “Neither Mr Johnson nor anyone acting on his behalf was ever aware that Sam Blyth was being considered for any role at the British Council, nor did Mr Johnson have any discussions with Sam Blyth or anyone else about any such role.
“Neither Mr Johnson nor anyone acting on his behalf spoke to anyone in the FCDO regarding Mr Blyth for any public appointment.”
The spokesman said: “Throughout this process, as the material The Sunday Times has obtained demonstrates, Mr Johnson followed advice and took the necessary steps to ensure probity. All declarations were made properly.”
Mr Sharp said last week that “having had a discussion with the Cabinet Secretary about avoiding conflict, and the perception of conflict, I felt comfortable, and I still feel there was no conflict because at that stage what I was seeking to do was ensure that the process was followed exactly by the book, and that the process hadn’t started, of any kind, in terms of any support that Sam (Blyth) was going to provide to the prime minister”.
“I had clarified and agreed with the Cabinet Secretary, both of us had the judgment that I’d avoided a conflict or a perception of conflict.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We do not comment on leaks.”