London When Rishi Sunak moved into 10 Downing Street as British Prime Minister in October 2022, he promised a government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels”. That was the end of the numerous scandals of his pre-predecessor Boris Johnson meant. Three months later, Sunak and his cabinet are stuck again in a quagmire of affairs, which has raised considerable doubts in London about the prime minister’s leadership.
This time the chairman of the Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi, is in the pillory. The 55-year-old was targeted by his own ministry’s tax investigators during his brief tenure as finance minister last summer. The reason: Zahawi had apparently not properly taxed the profits from the sale of his shares in the opinion research institute Yougov, which he co-founded. Both sides agreed on an additional tax payment plus penalty of around five million pounds (equivalent to around 5.7 million euros).
The fact that a Chancellor of the Exchequer is trying to avoid taxes in Gibraltar with the help of a family trust should already be a bitter blow for many Britons. The fact that Zahawi was nevertheless appointed party leader by Sunak and is still at the cabinet table today makes the unpleasant affair a problem for the prime minister. During parliamentary question time on Wednesday, Sunak claimed that he knew nothing about his party friend’s tax sins.
However, there are “questions that need to be answered”. The head of government has therefore ordered an investigation by his ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus to “get to the bottom of the matter”. Until then, Sunak made it clear in the lower house that he would not fire Zahawi.
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Prominent Tories like former party leader William Hague disagree and are calling on the Prime Minister to make a quick decision. The fact that Sunak himself had to justify the special tax status of his wife Akshata Murty, who lives in India, a few months ago doesn’t make things any better.
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For opposition leader Keir Starmer from the Labor party, the new affair is a steep template: “Does the prime minister believe that someone who tries to avoid taxes cannot at the same time be responsible for the country’s taxes?” Starmer wanted to know from Sunak . The Labor leader interpreted the Prime Minister’s refusal to answer as a sign of weakness in leadership.
And this is where Starmer touches a sore point, since it is not the first time that the prime minister has hesitated to hold fellow party members responsible for their misconduct. Sunak appointed the controversial Home Secretary Suella Braverman to his cabinet, although the Tory politician had resigned shortly before because of the disclosure of confidential documents. He also left his Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab unscathed, despite massive accusations from employees that he was a “bully”.
The fact that Sunak cannot be as strong a leader as he might like also has to do with his political weakness. Although the Tories have a 67-seat majority in the House of Commons, the party is divided on many issues. Sunak recently had to give in to demands from around 50 faction members who wanted to significantly tighten the new Internet security law. The Prime Minister had previously bowed to the will of Tory rebels in the dispute over binding targets for house and apartment building and had given up his opposition to new onshore wind turbines.
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For the opposition, these are all signs of weakness from a Conservative party that has been in power for 13 years but is more than 20 percentage points behind Labor in opinion polls. Even conservative voices like The Spectator magazine compare the scandal- and strife-ridden Tories’ decline to the final days of the government of ex-Prime Minister John Major before Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997.
The sins of his predecessors ensure that Sunak cannot escape the scandalous image of his party. As recently became known, ex-Prime Minister Johnson arranged a private loan of £800,000 with the help of today’s BBC Chairman Richard Sharp. Shortly thereafter, Johnson recommended the former Goldman Sachs banker for the BBC’s top job.