Model Release: E, Property Release: 3, Location: DeClic, Chatswood Chase, Sydney Australia
Artillery Row

You can’t buy an excuse

James Cleverly might have wished he had stayed in the shops

“I’m the face and voice of the UK on the international stage.” James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, began his Sunday morning broadcast round in an optimistic frame of mind. It lasted until the first question. 

Sophy Ridge of Sky News wanted to know about the astonishing coincidence that Boris Johnson had appointed Richard Sharp as chairman of the BBC just weeks after Sharp had helped to get him out of a deep financial hole. “Well, look, I don’t…” Cleverly stumbled. “I’ve not had a conversation with either of those parties about that situation.”

Usually a government minister going onto the Sunday shows would have been extensively briefed on topics likely to come up. Unfortunately, as Cleverly later told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, he’d spent Saturday “doing some shopping”, and so had arrived on camera unprepared. Not since John Major’s toothache prevented him from coming to the rescue of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 have domestic matters so fortuitously kept a Tory minister from his duty. The last thing Cleverly wanted on Sunday morning was to actually know anything about any of the day’s scandals. Knowledge too easily becomes complicity.

Not that ignorance turned out to be especially blissful. Cleverly squirmed as Ridge pushed him again and again. Why hadn’t he made any effort to find out if the story was true? “You’re the journalist, not me,” Cleverly snapped back.

He’d given him the job because he was an old mate

The government’s defence is that Johnson didn’t appoint Sharp because he’d helped get him get cash for his wallpaper. He’d given him the job because he was an old mate. That people think this is somehow better tells you a great deal about how Britain is run, and indeed why everything is going as well as it is. 

Sharp, Cleverly explained, had “both personal and professional attributes which qualify him for the job.” For instance, personally he was an old chum of Johnson’s, whereas professionally he’d helped to broker Johnson a loan. “The appointment is one that requires huge experience,” Cleverly went on. Indeed: how many people were out there in 2020 who were old friends of Johnson and had been touched up for cash? OK, probably all of them. But how many of them had been able to deliver it? That quality distinguished Sharp for a well-paid job at the top of British broadcasting.

“This was an appointment made by the prime minister’s predecessor-but-one,” Cleverly said, trying to make the events of two years ago sound like ancient history. It was all so long ago. Who could even remember that guy’s name? As it happens, three months ago, James Cleverly, face and voice of the UK on the international stage, had been able to, when he assured us that “Boris has learned lessons” and should be prime minister again. 

Of course, there was no way that Cleverly could have known last October that there were murky questions about Johnson’s finances yet to come out. Only someone with a passing acquaintance of the last-prime-minister-but-one’s character would have been able to guess at that. 

Kuenssberg’s show helpfully had a panel of commentators available to opine on these matters, including someone described as “the LBC presenter and journalist Rachel Johnson”. It’s important that we don’t simply define women by the men they’re related to, but it would be nice if the BBC looked a little further for political commentary than the former prime minister’s sister, especially when her contribution was to assure us that her brother had said everything was on the level, and we would have to accept that. I doubt she was this trusting when he cheated at Monopoly.

The stink over his own finances was only one of the messes that Johnson turns out to have left for his party to clear up. There’s the question of party chairman Nadhim Zahawi, who turns out to have spent his summer as chancellor of the exchequer negotiating to pay an unspecified seven-figure bill to the tax authorities of which he was, at the time, in charge. Who was responsible for this careless appointment? Who else but Johnson?

The problem, Cleverly explained, was that Zahawi had created a very successful business. “That business would have paid tax, those individuals would have paid tax, Nadhim has paid tax.” What was more, he didn’t go on to say, Zahawi had used his wealth to hire lawyers to threaten legal consequences to anyone who questioned whether he’d paid enough tax. And those lawyers would have paid tax too. 

 “People do make errors,” Cleverly said, pleading for our understanding. “And when those errors are highlighted, some people…” What? Send legal letters? Issue misleading denials? “…try to avoid making it right” – damn right they do, foreign secretary, damn right they do – “and others do the right thing. Nadhim’s done the right thing.” That is certainly one possible reading of events. 

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