Few ministerial departures have looked as sure a bet as Nadhim Zahawi’s over the past week. Some flare-ups can be toughed out but, in receiving a penalty for non-payment of taxes, the former Tory chair showed conduct that could never pass the sniff test with voters.
Defenders of Rishi Sunak will argue that he has acted decisively but properly in removing his party chair. Having ordered an inquiry at the beginning of the week, the prime minister sacked Zahawi within hours of receiving that report. Allies argue that Sunak moved fast while showing a respect for due process. It plays to his image as a details man, getting all the data before acting.
The counterargument is that the case was as clear-cut as they come and yet Sunak waited until action was unavoidable. Stories about Zahawi’s tax affairs were common currency in Westminster well before he was appointed. Those reporting the truth were threatened with libel letters. Sunak nonetheless reappointed him and defended him in the Commons, moving only when action became unavoidable. It reinforces Labour’s attacks that the prime minister is “weak”.
Critics can also note that, despite having promised to restore integrity to government, Sunak has had a run of such cases in a short time. Gavin Williamson was restored to cabinet and then forced to resign. Suella Braverman was reappointed home secretary within days of resigning for breaching security rules because Sunak needed her support to clinch the leadership. Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, is facing investigation over multiple accusations of bullying. For a man supposedly committed to standards in public life, Sunak is looking very unlucky. But he is also making his own bad luck. There was only one way the Zahawi affair was going to end. Sunak’s wish to look like a fresh start would have been better served by swifter and more decisive action.
And for all the focus on inquiries, investigation and due process, the fact is that Sunak is sheltering behind these probes. Ministers serve at the pleasure of the prime minister. He can sack whom he likes without any “due process” if he feels they are a political problem in any way. The ethics investigations are merely a shield which allows any leader to delay decisions or tell his own MPs there was no choice. Supposedly a safeguard against wrongdoing, these investigations are also a method of media and party management.
In one sense the Zahawi affair will now fade. Individual “sleaze” stories resonate less with the public than many imagine because voters tend to see such behaviour as common to all sides. But they are debilitating. Such squalls make it harder for Sunak to shift the political narrative on to territory that works better for him. Marshalling all the details is normally wise, but sometimes leadership demands gut instinct. If the major issues were going well it might not matter, but amid cost of living and public service crises, it simply adds fuel to the opposition argument that this is a tired, self-serving government that has been in office for too long.
It all makes it harder for Sunak to distance himself from the misconduct and lax standards of the Boris Johnson era. Many of these issues are the effluent of the previous administration, but they are washing up on his watch. As importantly, it reinforces the overall attack that the Tories do not regard the rules as applying to them.
Sunak is the party’s biggest asset at the moment. His reputation as quietly competent is the Tories’ best shot at holding on to power. If voters conclude he is just a continuation of the previous chaos then that chance recedes. A more political leader would be more ruthless in safeguarding his reputation.