Boris Johnson's university friend gets ethics watchdog rule

Artist's impression of Bullingdon club picture

image copyrightRona Marsden

Labour has accused Boris Johnson of “cronyism” after he appointed a university friend to a committee advising him on ethical standards.

Former lawyer Ewen Fergusson will begin a five-year stint on the Committee on Standards in Public Life next month.

He was a member of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club at the same time as the prime minister.

No 10 rejected the cronyism allegation, saying the role had been filled by “open and fair competition”.

Mr Fergusson features in a famous 1987 picture of Bullingdon members, alongside Mr Johnson and former Conservative PM David Cameron.

Mr Cameron and Mr Johnson have always been reluctant to talk about their membership of the club, which is known for its riotous behaviour.

Permission to use a photograph of the “class of 87” posing in their club tailcoats on the steps of Christ Church college, Oxford, was withdrawn by the rights holder,

A painting of the image by artist Rona Marsden has been used instead by media outlets.

‘Second career’

The prime minister’s official spokesman said on Friday that Mr Fergusson had applied for the ethics committee role “through open and fair competition”.

His application was “carefully considered by panel which interviewed him which found he was suitable for appointment,” the spokesman added.

Asked when Mr Johnson last spoke to Mr Fergusson, the spokesman said he had not asked the prime minister directly about it.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called on the government to publish correspondence between the Cabinet Office, the panel and Downing Street on Mr Fergusson’s appointment.

“If it does not, it will confirm the suspicion that they think there is one rule for them and another for everyone else,” she said.

The son of a British diplomat, Mr Fergusson has been a self-employed business adviser since 2018, when he left City law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

According to a LinkedIn profile, he is “crafting a second career” combining advisory roles to creative businesses and public sector positions.

Part-time role

His role on the standards committee, announced on Thursday, will see him advise the prime minister on ethical standards in public life.

The committee, set up in the 1990s in the wake of the “cash for questions” scandal, also conducts inquiries into issues like political finance and lobbying.

Mr Fergusson will fill one of five roles on the eight-person committee made by appointment of the PM, following a suitability assessment by a panel.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives also appoint a further three members between them.

Boris Johnson

image copyrightReuters

The job advert for the part-time role listed personal integrity and strength of character among sought-after characteristics from candidates applying.

It also said applicants needed an interest in ethical standards, and the ability to command the confidence of MPs and ministers.

Applicants were assessed by a four-member panel including ex-MI5 chief Lord Evans, who chairs the committee, and Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England.

Members of the committee do not receive a salary, but can claim £240 per each day worked, plus expenses for travel and subsistence.

According to the job description, members are expected to work an average of 24 days a year, possibly more if the committee is conducting a review.