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Departed Boris Johnson aide rejects conflict of interest concerns

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LONDON — A former top aide to Boris Johnson insisted he did not leave Downing Street due to alleged conflicts of interest. 

Eddie Lister said he long intended to quit politics and handed in his notice months before numerous sleaze scandals shot to the top of the Westminster agenda. 

The 71-year-old, who rarely speaks to the media, told POLITICO it was the “right time for me to go” and said he told the prime minister he would quit three months ago. He is Johnson’s longest serving aide after the pair worked together running London more than a decade ago and later served together at the Foreign Office.

He said his departure got swept up in the sleaze saga that has erupted since Johnson declared war on his former aide Dominic Cummings, but was unrelated. “My letters were in, the agreement was done — all of that was sorted,” he said. 

Lister was appointed Downing Street chief of staff when Johnson became prime minister, and from the start of 2021 stood in as chief strategic adviser following the Cummings departure. He was made a peer last November. It was quietly announced he was quitting Downing Street last Friday night.

He said he had intended to help Johnson settle into No.10 and deliver Brexit then leave. But he got sucked into work on the COVID crisis and the Middle East. He was two months ago appointed to help revamp U.K. relations with the Gulf, a role he said he wanted to continue, but was told he could not do part time. 

“I had hoped I could continue doing that into the future,” he said. “I thought that was quite a good role as a part-time role. But it was quite clear that wasn’t going to work as a part-time role. You’ve either got to be in government 100 percent or out of government. There isn’t a halfway house.”

There has been speculation that Lister decided to leave because of the ongoing sleaze scandal, due to a long string of alleged historic and ongoing conflicts of interest via second jobs he has held through his time in government. Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was undertaking a review into second jobs held by civil servants when Lister’s departure was announced, although Lister was a political appointee. The review was sparked by the scandal around controversial financier Lex Greensill.

Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves said there were questions to answer of Lister’s roles outside government. “A couple of weeks ago in [Prime Minister’s Questions], Boris Johnson said he was shocked to learn a senior civil servant was working for Greensill while still in government. But one of his most senior advisors and long time friends was still on the payroll of two property developers while taking a salary in Number 10.”

“Not only that, but the claims of cronyism keep stacking up against Lord Lister — the many stories about him are yet another example of the cronyism and sleaze that is engulfing this Conservative Government.”

Lister admitted he had “a couple of other bits and pieces” while he was in government but argued there were no conflicts of interest and had all been declared.

For example, he remained on the payroll for two property firms while in Downing Street, which he insisted was not a problem. “I was working with them, I was providing some governance, I was part of their system. But it was very light.” He said he was not involved in brokering property deals, and added that the roles were “declared” and “always common knowledge.”

While serving as a non-executive director at the Foreign Office, Lister led talks with China over its plans to purchase a new site for its U.K. embassy, while being paid by both the property firm representing Beijing and the developer that sold the site. It was claimed at the time that he was not involved in the negotiations, but a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life said the roles could have amounted to a conflict of interested and called for a probe.

Lister said he was “never involved in the discussions or anything” around the deal, adding that he had “never been involved in any deals on any properties”.

Elsewhere, Lister served as director of a firm aiming to build a “Hong Kong” in Libya, while in his Foreign Office role. He said he had “never ever had any discussions with anybody in government about Libya at any time” and added: “It was declared at the Foreign Office. They were aware of that.”

Lister insisted: “I was always quite clear that I had no conflicts and I never did anything that would create a conflict.” He declined to comment on whether rules governing the interests of those who work in government should be reformed.

The former aide also refused to be drawn on recent scandals in Downing Street, such as how the refurbishment of the prime minister’s apartment in Downing Street was paid for or whether Johnson said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order a third coronavirus lockdown.

He added that he would not return to a job in Downing Street. “I’m out, I’m gone. It’s now down to others. I’ve done my stint,” he said, adding that there were “several things I want to pursue in the private sector, which I will pursue in due course” — though he refused to be drawn on what.  

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