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December 03 2009

Boris Johnson held back information over Veronica Wadley appointment

Leaked emails challenge mayor of London's insistence that he had delivered 'very full disclosure' in Arts Council row

Boris Johnson held back information that showed his staff discussed a strategy to put the culture secretary "under more pressure to let our appointment stand" after the mayor of London recommended Veronica Wadley for a top London arts job.

Emails have emerged that challenge the mayor's insistence earlier this week that he had delivered "very full disclosure" of correspondence relating to the appointment of the chair of the London Arts Council to give "as full a picture as possible" of events.

Correspondence sent in September between Johnson's private secretary, Roisha Hughes, his cultural adviser, Munira Mirza, and Tom Middleton, a City Hall officer, show a flurry of exchanges while the mayor was waiting to hear whether Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, would back his recommendation to appoint Veronica Wadley, the former editor of the London Evening Standard, to the job.

Johnson rejected the view of the chair of the Arts Council for England, Liz Forgan, and an independent member of the panel that held the first round of interviews, who claimed Wadley lacked arts credibility – and recommended Wadley for the post at the end of July – just after the parliamentary recess had begun.

In September, Mirza, who is also a member of the board of the London Arts Council, wrote to discuss interim arrangements because the incumbent chair, Lady Hollick, was about to step down from the post after completing two terms and Bradshaw had still not given a verdict on Johnson's recommendation.

In comments that suggest Johnson's team was braced for a veto – which was confirmed in early October – Hughes wrote back to say: "Is it imperative there is a chair in place? We may prefer to keep the pressure up by keeping the position empty."

Mirza replied: "Fair point. Let's see what happens." A further contribution was made by Middleton: "I agree with Roisha that not having a chair in place will put the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] under more pressure to let our appointment stand."

The next month, Bradshaw wrote to Johnson to say he had rejected the recommendations on the grounds that the selection process was believed to have breached two of the Nolan principles which protect public appointments from political interference – prompting charges of cronyism against Johnson.

The leaked emails sent by Johnson's staff were not included in either bundles of documentation published at two intervals by the mayor following a request from Len Duvall, the Labour group leader on the London assembly, for "all GLA correspondence (written and digital) relating to the appointment of chair of the arts council in London", on 9 October.

Johnson told Duvall on 30 October that his request was being treated as a formal request for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Hundreds of pages were released under the FoI at the end of last week. Duvall then asked the mayor to clarify what information had been excluded. He also requested "as an assembly member ... information I am entitled to in order to carry out my [scrutiny] function as an elected member of the assembly".

The mayor replied, saying that "in due course it will need to be determined whether or not there is any confidential information you are entitled to see in private in this basis".

He included the release of further correspondence to "provide as full a picture as possible" to the London assembly, which is the cross-party elected scrutiny body which holds the mayor to account.

Johnson explained: "I have gone further than I implied in my letter of 27 November in that I have, in the public interest, released correspondence from the Arts Council and the DCMS so as to provide you and your fellow assembly members with as full a picture as possible. I am sure you will agree that a response of 580 sides of A4 indicates very full disclosure."

Johnson went on to bullet-point five criteria for exemption, including "a very limited number of email exchanges and drafts of documents whose disclosure I have deemed would have been prejudicial to the effective conductive of public affairs".

The probe over events that led to Johnson choosing Wadley for the role continues, with two letters due to be dispatched to seek clarification around the selection process due to differing accounts issued to date.

Dee Doocey, chair of the assembly's economic development, culture, sports and tourism committee, is set to seek clarification from Mirza over evidence she gave to the committee in October.

Doocey will also write to City Hall's chief executive, Leo Boland, to ask him to clarify how the second process will be run, following Johnson's decision to readvertise the post rather than select one of the three candidates who were put on the final shortlist.

The timetable for interviews outlined by Johnson now means that he is unlikely to make a recommendation to the culture secretary until late March at the earliest, just weeks before the general election.

It is unclear whether Wadley intends to apply again. The Guardian has approached her for comment.

Liz Forgan is also the chair of the Scott Trust, the parent body that controls Guardian News and Media.

Read more on this issue on Dave Hill's London blog

Veronica Wadley - yet more mail

Veronica Wadley: Six days in July


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


December 02 2009

How Boris lost his shine | Dave Hill

The mayor of London's quest to land a friend and old ally a cushy job looks worryingly like cronyism

A chap can push his luck too far, even when his name is Boris Johnson. You know the one I mean: clever, funny, a bit accident-prone and sort of sexy if he's your kind of blond. He gets away with things, too, and does so in a knowing way that confirms his disarming roguery. But the shine can come off even the most dazzling chancer when his cavalier style starts to look like arrogance, and his disrespect for boundaries like plain old opportunism. Mayor Boris of London is in danger of sliding that way.

Just 18 months into his term he is routinely accused of drift, ineptitude and attention-seeking – while at the same time dodging scrutiny. To this list some now add that he is taking the wrong sort of care of an old friend. A fat file of correspondence has been published on the Greater London Authority website following a request by one of Johnson's Labour opponents. It relates to his dauntless quest to get a friend and erstwhile media ally a nice little quango job. The story told by the file's 660 pages contains pregnant gaps and many ambiguities but the clear central narrative is of a political machine working hard to make what could easily be taken for classic cronyism look respectable.

The alleged crony in question is Veronica Wadley who, as editor of the Evening Standard during the 2008 mayoral election campaign, daily waged a zealous war against Johnson's opponent Ken Livingstone. In some ways, it did her no good: under a new owner the first large act of her successor was to woo lost readers by launching an advertising campaign apologising for the previous regime. Johnson, though, has remained a Wadley fan.

In late April this year, the couple lunched. Afterwards, Wadley wrote Johnson a note, daintily seeking his blessing to apply for the post of chair of Arts Council England's London region which he had "mentioned" while they dined. Three people presided at her subsequent first interview. One was Munira Mirza, Johnson's culture adviser. The other two were ACE chair Liz Forgan (who also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian) and Sir David Durie, a former governor of Gibraltar, who provided independent oversight.

Durie, as was later made clear to him, was a panellist without a vote. But he knows what he saw, and didn't like what happened next. Both he and Forgan considered Wadley to lack the necessary arts background, and claim that she interviewed markedly less well than three other candidates before her. Both claim it was agreed at the end of the interview meeting that those three, and not Wadley, would go forward to a second, final interview with the mayor. Both made clear their dismay on learning a few days later that, in fact, the mayor intended interviewing Wadley anyway at the expense of one of the other three.

Johnson later consented to seeing the elbowed candidate too, but required little time to make his final choice. Wadley was the last of the four he saw. Her appointment with him, witnessed only by a senior GLA official, was for 3.30pm on 24 July. A letter informing her that she was the mayor's pick was being drafted by 5.15pm on the same day. The saga didn't end there. Johnson needed culture secretary Ben Bradshaw's approval of his choice. After consulting Forgan, Bradshaw declined to oblige. Johnson's riposte has been to start a rerun of the whole process, scheduling it to end handily close to an expected change of government and surely heartened by shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's indication that he, unlike Bradshaw, wouldn't prevent Johnson from getting his way. The job was re-advertised on Monday. Aside from Wadley, it seems that only rejection addicts need apply.

As the correspondence file shows, many around the mayor have striven to ensure that the jolly buccaneer they serve has acted legally and in accordance with written protocol. Mirza has provided a different version of what that first interview meeting concluded. Johnson has told Forgan that were it not for his goodwill she wouldn't have been involved in the first place, and emphasised that the ACE London job is – thanks to the Labour government, by the way – a mayoral appointment, after all.

But the real story here is that Johnson has exploited the process's potential for being reduced to a farce, and done so in order that it generates the outcome he desires – no matter how unfair to others that might be. He's shown no flicker of embarrassment about this. Neither has Wadley. Same old Tories. Same old inflated sense of entitlement. If I were David Cameron, I'd have a word.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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