Boris Johnson breached government rules by being ‘evasive’ about links to hedge fund

19 April 2024, 11:38

Boris Johnson breached rules for former ministers, watchdog rules
Boris Johnson breached rules for former ministers, watchdog rules. Picture: Alamy

By StephenRigley

Former prime minister Boris Johnson has breached UK Government rules by being "evasive" about his relationship with a company that set up a meeting between him and Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, the business appointments watchdog has said.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Lord Pickles, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), has written to both Mr Johnson and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden warning of the breach.

It comes after the former Conservative prime minister failed to clarify his relationship with a company called Merlyn Advisors, a hedge fund.

Mr Johnson is reported to have met Mr Maduro alongside Merlyn Advisors co-founder Maarten Petermann in February.

Lord Pickles wrote in his letter to Mr Dowden: "Mr Johnson has repeatedly been asked by Acoba to clarify his relationship with Merlyn Advisors.

"He has not done so, nor has he denied the reports in the media that he has been working with Merlyn Advisors on a non-contractual basis."

Government rules state former ministers must not take up new jobs or appointments for two years after leaving public office without advice from Acoba first.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Picture: Getty

Read More: Boris Johnson flew to Venezuela for secret talks with president Nicolas Maduro

Read More: Tory donor reveals he had to 'fight' for refund after £100,000 breakfast with Boris Johnson 'didn't materialise'

In correspondence dating back to March 18, the watchdog contacted Mr Johnson's office asking him to set out his relationship with Merlyn Advisors following media reports of his South American visit.

He replied he had no contractual relationship with the company, and in further correspondence said he had not been paid for any meetings in Venezuela.

He added: "I was extensively briefed by HMA (His Majesty's Ambassador) Caracas before the meeting and used the occasion to push for democracy, human rights and the support of Ukraine."

Lord Pickles raised concerns that the trip was paid for by Merlyn Advisers and about the nature of Mr Johnson's activities for the company, even though he was not under any formal contract.

The peer warned: "If that is the case, there is a reasonable concern that you were acting in a capacity that would be inconsistent with Acoba's guidance on 'one-off' speaking engagements - which does not provide blanket approval for ad-hoc advisory work."

Mr Johnson did not answer further questions from Lord Pickles about the nature of the meetings or his relationship with Merlyn, and said he believed it was "clearly not necessary to consult or seek Acoba" about the work.

But the watchdog chief disagreed and said there "remains a reasonable concern that you were acting for Merlyn Advisors in a capacity that would be considered advisory work", which Acoba would have expected him to ask advice for.

He added: "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."

Lord Pickles then reported the former prime minister's actions to Mr Dowden, who is also responsible for overseeing the Cabinet Office, the department which oversees the machinery of Government.

He admitted there was little action which could be taken against Mr Johnson, as the rules "no longer have relevance in the modern world and are unenforceable to applicants determined to ignore them".

The Government should reform the rules as it promised in July 2023, Lord Pickles said, to ensure those who breach them faces consequences.