Boris Johnson condemned over ‘pathetic’ appointment of ex-Bullingdon Club friend to Whitehall sleaze watchdog

Labour calls independent role for prime minister’s university friend an ‘utter joke’

Adam Forrest@adamtomforrest
Friday 16 July 2021 13:48
Today's daily politics briefing

Boris Johnson’s government is under fire after one of the prime minister’s university friends – a former Bullingdon Club member – was handed a role on Whitehall’s sleaze watchdog.

Ewen Fergusson, a member of Oxford’s infamous dining club at the same time as the prime minister, has been named as one of two new members for the committee on standards in public life.

Sir Alistair Graham, former chair of the independent committee, claimed the appointment was “pathetic” – given the friendship between Mr Johnson and Mr Fergusson.

“It really is desperate if you have to be a university mate of Boris Johnson to qualify to sit on the committee that is supposed to examine sleaze,” Sir Alistair said.

“I doubt that the experience of the Bullingdon would provide any of the right qualifications. It seems like a completely inappropriate appointment.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner also attacked the decision, calling it an “utter joke” and demanded to see all the correspondence between the Cabinet Office, the panel and 10 Downing Street relating to the appointment.

“This is more of the same Conservative cronyism. This prime minister does not even care to hide it,” said Ms Rayner. “If it does not [publish correspondence] it will confirm the suspicion that they think there is one rule for them and another for everyone else.”

The committee on standards in public life advises the prime minister on ethical issues and can conduct inquiries into any perceived conflict of interests.

Although appointments to the sleaze watchdog are made by the Cabinet Office, it is understood that membership selections to the advisory body are approved by No 10.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Mr Fergusson applied through open and fair competition, following the governance code for public appointments.”

The spokesperson added: “His application was carefully considered on its merits by the advisory assessment panel, which interviewed him and found that he was appointable.”

Mr Fergusson – a former partner at Herbert Smith Freehills legal firm – was photographed alongside both Mr Johnson and David Cameron at a gathering of the Bullingdon Club in 1987.

But permission to republish the photograph has been withdrawn by the photographers who hold the copyright.

The elite dining club, satirised as “the Bollinger Club” in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, has become notorious for its strange rituals and riotous banquets.

In 2005 four members were fined after the group smashed 17 bottles of wine at a country pub outside Oxford.

Mr Johnson was recently criticised for allowing Whitehall watchdogs to remain “toothless” after he rejected recommendations to give his own ethics adviser powers to launch inquiries into misbehaviour by ministers.

The independent adviser on ministerial interests, Lord Geidt, must wait for the green light from the prime minister before opening an investigation into alleged misconduct.

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