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Sunak criticised for reappointing Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak has made Dominic Johnson an unpaid senior minister in the Department for International Trade. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

Rishi Sunak has been criticised over the reappointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner as a trade minister after the Conservative peer suggested farmers could be helped to turn their barns into “offices or whatever” if they are hit by post-Brexit trade deals.

Dominic Johnson, who with Rees-Mogg co-founded Somerset Capital Management, also faces questions about potential conflicts of interests after he disclosed that he still has a substantial financial interest in the asset manager and other companies, including a cigar website and crypto data business.

He was given a seat in the House of Lords by Liz Truss’s government before being made an investment minister, but Sunak sacked him after 26 days in the job.

He has been reinstated, however, as an unpaid senior minister of state in the Department for International Trade under Kemi Badenoch.

As he left his previous job, he gave an interview to Politico saying he thought the government needed to be more honest with farmers that their businesses would be harmed by post-Brexit trade deals allowing cheaper food imports from abroad.

He also suggested ministers could do more to explain how they would help convert agricultural buildings to “offices or whatever it is”.

The shadow trade secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said: “The reappointment of Dominic Johnson shows how weak Rishi Sunak is and that the Conservatives have learned nothing from their cronyism scandals.

“Dominic Johnson’s appalling and arrogant views on farmers shows how little the party cares about working people. No wonder trade ministers delivered a deal with Australia that lets down UK agriculture so badly.”

The shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, said Johnson’s reappointment must be a joke.

“Surely this isn’t true. Dominic Johnson has now been reappointed by Rishi Sunak as a trade minister? The same Dominic Johnson who was sacked from the role a month ago, and then told British farmers they should convert their farms into offices?” she said.

Johnson’s financial interests were published on Friday on the House of Lords register, showing he is still a partner and co-owner of Somerset Capital Management despite his government role.

The firm is reportedly up for sale and he stepped down as the chief executive when he became a minister the first time.

The register also shows Johnson controls a website called Cigar Keep and has a personal services company called AMP Ventures Ltd.

He also has interests in two houseboat companies, crypto data, online order aggregation, battery technology, solar panel technology, an online estate agency, coffee shops, investment management in Vietnam and New Zealand, retail data, recruitment, green emissions technology and car data.

There is no reference on the register as to whether these shareholdings have been placed in a blind trust, which many ministers do in order to claim they have no control over their investments. Doing so also enables them to keep their holdings secret.

Jeremy Purvis, a Liberal Democrat trade spokesperson in the House of Lords, said: “Trust in politicians is already at an all-time low. Every incoming minister with the new prime minister must be clear that they have no conflicts of interest before they represent the country abroad or in the houses of parliament.”

Johnson’s elevation to the Lords and a government job originally triggered a row over cronyism given his relationship with Rees-Mogg, who was then business secretary.

The peer is also a substantial Tory donor. He has given more than £250,000 to the party and was its vice-chair between 2016 and 2019. He replaced Gerry Grimstone, the former chair of Barclays and Standard Life, in his role as trade minister, encouraging inward investment.

Asked about Labour’s criticism of Johnson, a government spokesperson said: “We have secured major successes including opening up the Japanese market to British beef, lamb and poultry, pork exports to Mexico and Chile, and bringing an end to the US lamb ban.

“Our trade deals balance open and free trade with protections for our farmers. The UK did not fully liberalise beef and sheep trade in either the Australian or New Zealand trade agreements – these contain safeguards to support and protect British farmers.”

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