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Anti-Midas: the careers derailed by working with Boris Johnson

Friends of former BBC chairman Richard Sharp have claimed he was told by a senior Downing Street official he had “done nothing wrong” just weeks before he was forced to resign over his involvement with an £800,000 loan given to Boris Johnson.

Sharp quit the top BBC job in late April after a report found he had breached public appointment rules by failing to declare involvement in the loan to Johnson.

Simon Case, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, was approached by Sharp about the matter in a meeting in December 2020, before Sharp was appointed chairman of the BBC. According to allies of Sharp, Case told him that he had not acted improperly and was “was on the side of the angels” in seeking to facilitate the loan, reported The Telegraph.

“A word of advice for anyone who has worked hard to acquire a reputation they cherish,” wrote Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian: “if Boris Johnson approaches… run a mile.” Sharp’s resignation is “the latest proof that, even out of office, Johnson continues to act as reputational napalm, laying waste careers and turning good names bad”.

The former chairman joins a “long list” of once-respected figures who have been “diminished by their contact” with Johnson, wrote Freedland, who dubbed Johnson “the reverse Midas, the man who rots everything he touches”. 

As Sharp prepares for some time in the wilderness, The Week takes a look at some of those who have felt the anti-Midas effect of Boris Johnson.

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Simon Case

Sharp is set to step down in June, but Case may not be far behind after being caught up in the debacle and heavily criticised for his handling of the affair.

The Telegraph reported this week that Case could soon “step aside” now that the coronation of King Charles III is over, and is said to believe his proximity to Boris Johnson has “undermined his reputation”, according to sources close to him. 

The 44-year-old, who became the youngest cabinet secretary in over a century when he was was appointed in 2020, is said to be “bitter” over his close association with the former prime minister. Case believes his subsequent involvement with scandals linked to Johnson – such as Partygate and the appointment of Sharp as BBC chairman – has “damaged his career”, said The Telegraph.

But other sources have argued that Case was at least partly responsible for the damage done to his career. “It’s not as though he didn’t know what Boris Johnson was like,” one source told the paper. “He presumably went into it with his eyes wide open.”

Revelations that he sent mocking WhatsApp messages about cabinet ministers during the pandemic have also injured his reputation, added the Telegraph. The paper cited allegations that his messages “compromised the Civil Service’s political neutrality” and seemed to suggest that he had an “inappropriately close relationship with some ministers”.

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Allegra Stratton

The former top political journalist was “thrust into public consciousness” in December 2021, when ITV obtained a video in which Downing Street staff were joking about an alleged Christmas party that was held in No.10 during the December 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, said Politics.co.uk.

Working as Boris Johnson’s press secretary at the time, Stratton was shown in a mock news conference in which she was responding to questions from colleagues. One question referred to a Christmas gathering in which cheese and wine were involved, joking: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

Stratton was forced to resign after a public backlash to the video, even though there was “no suggestion that the Prime Minister’s former spokeswoman broke any rules herself”, said Martha Gill in The New Statesman in May last year. Indeed, “she resigned because she had been recorded laughing at the challenge before her: how to defend Boris Johnson should the press get wind of the parties” that took place in Downing Street during national lockdowns.  

Fines for attending Downing Street parties – issued after the Metropolitan Police launched an investigation – “fell disproportionately on junior members of staff, in particular women”, noted Gill. She added that the handling of the debacle suggested it was “no coincidence that, in this atmosphere, the only person to have resigned over partygate is a woman”.

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Christopher Geidt

Stratton was not the only political casualty from Johnson’s involvement in the Partygate scandal. 

Christopher Geidt, a former private secretary to the Queen who was serving as Johnson’s ethics adviser, endured a brutal parliamentary grilling from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee over his stance on Johnson’s pandemic rule-breaking. During the hearing, he was asked by MPs whether he had considered resigning over the saga.

Lord Geidt was said to be clinging on to his role “by a very small margin” at the time, following the Partygate scandal and Johnson’s failure to acknowledge that he had violated the standards required by public office, according to sources who spoke to The Independent.  

In the end, however, it was an argument over steel tariffs that led to Geidt stepping down. In a scathing resignation letter, Geidt accused Johnson of risking a “deliberate and purposeful breach of the ministerial code” by asking him to advise on a plan to maintain tariffs on Chinese steel that would have broken World Trade Organization rules, placing him in an “impossible and odious position”.

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David Cameron 

David Cameron’s distaste for Johnson is no secret in political circles, but it seems his frustration towards his fellow Old Etonian had not abated by May 2019, when Johnson’s successful campaign to oust Theresa May was well underway. 

According to the memoirs of former Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan, In the Thick of It, Cameron exploded over breakfast with him, claiming that Johnson had “ruined my bloody career”. 

The entry reads: “Breakfast with David Cameron. He is so glad not to be in the middle of everything that is going on at the moment.

“He has a very straightforward opinion about Boris – ‘He ruined my bloody career’.”

The incident allegedly took place on 1 May 2019, just weeks before May resigned, following Johnson’s efforts to bring her down. Within two months, Johnson had succeeded her as prime minister. 

Duncan’s book suggests that Cameron’s disdain for the Brexit-supporting Johnson stemmed from his own “humiliating” resignation as prime minister after losing the 2016 EU referendum – a victory brought about in part by “a series of wounding attacks” on Cameron by Johnson, said the Daily Mail. 

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