Rishi Sunak’s Delayed Sacking of Nadhim Zahawi Only Confirms his Weakness
The Prime Minister's sacking of Zahawi for breaking the ministerial code, while reinstating Suella Braverman just days after doing the same, shows exactly where his principles really lie.
Eleven days after telling MPs that the allegations against him had been dealt with “in full” and days after insisting he still had full “confidence” in him as a minister, Rishi Sunak has finally sacked Nadhim Zahawi.
In his letter to the former Conservative Chairman, Sunak told him that he had committed a “serious breach of the Ministerial Code” by failing to declare the tax avoidance allegations and penalty imposed against him by HMRC.
However, Sunak’s delayed action only raises more questions than it answers.
Firstly, the allegations against Zahawi were not new. The substance of the allegations had been public knowledge for some months, and claims about Zahawi’s wider business dealings were well known within Westminster.
Indeed, according to some reports, Sunak was personally warned by officials about the risk of appointing him.
That he chose to appoint him anyway, suggests that his newfound “principled” opposition to such behaviour is not quite what it seems.
Supporters of Sunak have also suggested that his decision to sack Zahawi is confirmation of his pledge to restore integrity and “accountability” to Government.
However, if breaking the ministerial code is now a sacking offence under his Government, then he now needs to explain why he choose to reinstate Suella Braverman as Home Secretary just days after she was also found to have broken it.
The reality is that in both cases Sunak’s decision had less to do with the strength of his political principles than it did with the weakness of his own political position.
In appointing both Zahawi and Braverman, despite the allegations against them, Sunak took a political decision that maintaining standards in public life was less important than securing internal party political advantage.
His belated decision to sack Zahawi is no different. As long as it was politically expedient to keep Zahawi within his Cabinet, Sunak was happy to turn a blind eye to the allegations against him.
Once the political damage of keeping him in post became too great, the Prime Minister suddenly rediscovered the commitment to “integrity” and “accountability” that he was previously so happy to forget.
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The fact Zahawi’s response merely attacked the press shows incredibly poor judgment. When anyone is under HMRC investigation they know about it and the seriousness of such matters. Zahawi’s advisors MUST have told him several things: 1: this is not going away anytime soon. 2: this is going to be expensive in fees (he probably had insurance so no real cost there unless it was evasion which it wasn’t.) 3: you will almost certainly face a penalty which will range from X to Y as it is incredibly difficult to argue innocent error.
Since this arose out of a series of pre-planned transactions designed to avoid tax it is likely that advisors didn’t tell HMRC about the arrangements in advance for some sort of clearance. That’s always advisable when dealing with grey areas. That would be enough to stand up a charge of carelessness. It then come down to quantum and my guess is that the final settlement was a negotiated figure based on a disagreement about the underlying transfer value involved that ultimately triggered the original tax charge.
Zahawi could have avoided all of this by recusing himself from high office but chose not to do so.
Sunak is taking us for fools if he ignored advice from civil servants. He must be aware that tax arrangements involving offshore are fraught with problems. If he chose to not follow up when first informed then he’s either incredibly stupid (I doubt that) or naive (more likely) to think it wouldn’t come back to mire him in deep trouble.
Your point about Braverman is well made. As Michael Portillo (gasp!) is reported to have said: Sunak looks weak. That’s no good for either the Tories or the country. It’s death by a 1,000 cuts.
Hi Adam, Unbelievably, the papers now have unnamed Johnson "allies" pushing for him to be made Party Chairman. Sunak won't gain any political capital by sacking Zahawi.....but surely he must be aware that appointing Johnson to any role at all would not only destabilise his party and govt, but also burn through his diminishing stock of political capital within weeks?