Voices: Richard Sharp’s real failing was keeping bad company (that means you, Boris)

Voices: Richard Sharp’s real failing was keeping bad company (that means you, Boris)

Say what you like about Richard Sharp, he is not a stupid man. He knew when the game was up, and, unlike many others in a similar position, did not try to hang on and embarrass himself.

He is an intelligent man, and has been a perfectly competent chair of the BBC – a role to which he was appointed, as he always said, on “merit”.

It’s a traditionally political appointment, so his being a past Tory donor shouldn’t necessarily have ruled him out. No one minded when Chris Patten was chair, and he’d been chair of the Tory party. Labour sympathisers have been given the job too, and fallen out with a Labour government.

Sharp did, however, get himself into bad company – that of Boris Johnson. It is not the first time that someone has found their reputation trashed by association with our rogueish former prime minister: wives, girlfriends, political allies, editors, party leaders, friends, advisers, civil servants, the DUP, the ERG, business people... all end up betrayed, damaged or destroyed by coming into contact with the toxic material that is Johnson.

Sharp has now done the right thing. He made an error of judgement in continuing with his application to be chair of the BBC after he’d become entangled in Johnson’s private financial affairs.

It was at that point that he should have ruled himself out of any public role that depended, to any degree, on the patronage of the prime minister. Even if there was nothing wrong, the perception would have been that there was cronyism, or worse, at work.

Sharp sought to have the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, cover him, and give him a kind of certificate to state that he wasn’t subject to a conflict of interest – which he could wave, should the need arise, at anyone who suggested that there was (or had been) such a conflict.

But just because Case says there’s no conflict of interest, it doesn’t mean there is no conflict of interest – it is not holy writ. To labour the point: if Case says that black is white, it does not make it so.

Case, appointed by Johnson, himself now has more questions to answer about his role in this saga (as with, among other things, Partygate).

The fact that Johnson was involved in the appointment of the BBC chair mandates that the history of the £800,000 credit facility (in which Sharp played a very limited role in arranging) should not have remained secret and undeclared.

Sharp, and everyone else, surely knew that if he were to publicly disclose this background to the BBC, or to the culture select committee, they’d rule him out. So he couldn’t, and didn’t, and pressed on – perhaps knowing full well that this story might one day come out (although, of course, Sharp says the breach was inadvertent).

Sharp has also relieved Rishi Sunak of the pressure of having to decide whether to sack him or not: a bit of a lose-lose dilemma for the PM.

Keep Sharp on and Sunak would have been accused of corruption and sleaze, looking after a Johnson crony, and he would have looked weak to those on the left. Sack Sharp and Sunak gets called a stooge of the deep state and all that, and looks weak to the right.

The Sharp story is essentially a “legacy scandal”. It has little to do with Sunak; frankly, it’s just another one of the messes left behind when Johnson was finally bundled out of Downing Street last year.

Johnson, with his failures and blunders, cast a long shadow over his party and the country. Soon, the Commons privileges committee will publish its findings on whether Johnson lied to parliament, another distraction Sunak doesn’t need.

At that point, Sunak may have an opportunity to finally break free of, and eclipse, his predecessor-but-one. Remember, Rishi: it’s all about integrity, accountability and professionalism.