Boris Johnson accused of helping Vote Leave chair gain influential job in foreign office

Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart on the BBC Andrew Marr Show.

Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart on the BBC Andrew Marr Show. - Credit: Archant

The government has defended the appointment of former Vote Leave chief Gisela Stuart to an influential role in the Foreign Office, following claims Boris Johnson interferred in the recruitment process.

The former Labour MP who led the Vote Leave campaign, was supported by a number of senior Tory politicians including former foreign secretary Johnson, has become chair of Wilton Park.

It is an executive agency of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), described as "an international forum for strategic discussion".

Critics in the House of Lords questioned Stuart's suitability for the post she took up last October, highlighting her "extreme Brexit views".

But supporters rallied to her defence, including Brexiteer Lord Lamont, who accused her detractors of being "mean-minded".

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The government has now insisted the correct procedures were followed in appointing Stuart.

Raising the issue in the House, Labour peer Baroness Prosser said: "When appointing the chair of Wilton Park, with its duty to reach out to the rest of the world, did the Minister responsible consider the background of this person, who most recently in her career was the chair of the Vote Leave campaign?

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"An organisation with a duty to separate the UK from the rest of Europe and which to boot has been fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission for overspending and from failures to properly record and report expenditure."

Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the interview panel had appointed Stuart based on her "long parliamentary and foreign policy experience and her vision to connect Wilton Park more closely with parliamentarians of all parties".

He added: "I believe she is a very capable chair. She has the right experience... and for all public appointments there is a clear process which is set out and that was followed in this case."

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tyler said: "When Boris Johnson interfered in this appointment process, did he take into account the potential danger to the reputation of this exemplary FCO institution?

"As we heard, Gisela Stuart chaired the Vote Leave campaign, which was found guilty of breaking the law of the land, is the subject of a police investigation and has now accepted that guilt.

He added: "What assurance of complete political impartiality has she given?"

Lord Ahmad responded: "The fact that just because someone shares the same perspective (on Brexit) one should not suggest and it would be wrong to suggest the kind of interference he does."

"As I've already made clear, there was a process which was followed according to the rules."

Under Johnson and Stuart's leadership Vote Leave was fined £61,000 after the Electoral Commission found it had exceeded its legal spending limit of £7 million by almost £500,000 during the EU referendum campaign.

Vote Leave, along with Leave.EU, was also referred by the elections watchdog to Scotland Yard, which is examining whether there were breaches of election law.

Stuart said she could not prove the innocence of Vote Leave in the cases presented against the organisation because they destroyed the data.

"Our biggest problem in the end was that we destroyed all our data, and therefore some of the evidential basis which people are asking for", she told the BBC.

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