Boris Johnson breached rules by being 'evasive' over links to hedge fund, says watchdog

Former prime minister Boris Johnson has breached government rules by being "evasive" about his links to a hedge fund that set up a meeting between him and the president of Venezuela, a watchdog has said.

Mr Johnson raised a few eyebrows earlier this year after his spokesman confirmed he had flown to the country to meet its controversial leader Nicolas Maduro.

But now, the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) Lord Pickles, has highlighted further controversary around the meeting which was arranged by a company called Merlyn Advisors - a hedge fund.

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Under government rules, any minister leaving office must run new jobs or appointments by the Acoba watchdog before taking them up.

But Lord Pickles said despite "repeatedly" being asked to "clarify his relationship" with the firm, Mr Johnson had "not done so", nor had he "denied the reports in the media that he had been working with Merlyn Advisors on a non-contractual basis".

An exchange of letters between the chairman and the former leader has now been published online, with Lord Pickles first asking about his dealings with the firm on 18 March, saying Mr Johnson had "indicated that [he] would not be taking up a role at Merlyn Advisors" in October 2023.

Two days later, his office replied, saying: "I can confirm that Mr Johnson did not take up the role with Merlyn Advisors and he has no contractual relationship with the company."

But Lord Pickles responded, saying he had "failed to address the question posed to you on your precise relationship with Merlyn Advisors".

A further response from Mr Johnson insisted he was "not paid for any meetings in Venezuela" and "all Acoba rules have been followed", but the chair wrote back to say his relationship with the company "remains ambiguous", with another list of questions.

On 9 April, Mr Johnson again replied, saying he "believed it was clearly not necessary to consult or seek Acoba advice" ahead of his meeting with President Maduro, and claimed the watchdog was "fully aware of all my current contracts and employment obligations".

But Lord Pickles took issue with his words, and said Mr Johnson's responses had "lacked candour", adding: "Given the evasive nature of your replies, your failure to answer specific questions put to you, or provide the context of your relationship with Merlyn Advisors, the committee has formed the view that there has been a breach of the government's business appointment rules."

According to the Institute for Government, while Acoba can publicly say when a former minister has breached the rules, it has no power to enforce sanctions, and it is left to the government of the day to decide on any action to be taken.

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The government committed to toughening up the rules last July and suggested changes would allow it to "explore further sanctions, such as financial penalties" when rules were broken - but these sanctions would be decided by the Cabinet Office, rather than Acoba, and have yet to come into force.

Sky News contacted Mr Johnson's spokesperson about the claims, but they declined to comment.