Here’s a thought. Rishi Sunak does not appear to be possessed of an inquisitive mind. An unusual quality in a prime minister. Rather he seems almost inert. To the point of being comatose. He worries a bit about the economy, the health service, the cost of living crisis, the strikes. But he never really seems to do anything effective about them.
Rish! stares motionless in terror, like a rabbit caught in headlights. Waiting for the onslaught to somehow dematerialise. For the crises to pass of their own accord. It’s as if he is the embodiment of the Tory government that after 13 years has finally admitted defeat. He knows the game is up. Anything he does will be wrong, so best to do nothing at all. Just let the world unravel.
Much the same goes for his attitude towards his ministers. He doesn’t like to ask any of the tough questions. Take Dominic Raab. There have been whispers about his bullying, psycho management style for years. And about his competence. He was the foreign secretary who refused to leave the beach – “the sea was closed” – during the Afghanistan airlift. And yet Sunak reappointed him to the cabinet. On the grounds he couldn’t find anyone better. Only when the evidence was overwhelming, did Rish! get someone else to investigate. To get someone else to take responsibility for his inaction.
Then there was Suella Braverman. Sacked for breaking the ministerial code by Liz Truss, Rish! reappointed her as home secretary just six days later. It’s as if nothing mattered. The new government was a tabula rasa where anything that might disqualify you from ministerial office was wiped clean. New year, new you! Sunak cannot bear to confront the weaknesses of his team. So he indulges them instead. Lets them reinvent themselves in their own image. Tonight Matthew, I will be ... credible. Only, we’ll be the judge of that.
Which brings us to Nadhim Zahawi. Yet again, Sunak failed to ask the tough questions. Closed down conversations, rather than opening them up. Happy to take the Tory party chair’s word that there was nothing untoward about his tax affairs, rather than going the extra mile and checking with the cabinet secretary.
Had he done so, any number of red flags would have been raised. But Rish! just wanted an easy life. A happy one in which all his colleagues were an open book. So he got blindsided when it emerged that Zahawi had paid £5m in both a fine and unpaid tax to HMRC and had tried to bully journalists into not writing about. Still, Sunak could have salvaged his own reputation by sacking his minister immediately. But he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Either terrified of the gaze being turned on to his personal tax affairs, or just because he was too indecisive. Too weak.
And so the Zahawi affair rumbles on for another day, further eroding the credibility of the government. This time it was played out in the public accounts committee where Jim Harra, the chief executive of HMRC, was giving evidence. When Harra had been asked to appear, Zahawi’s tax returns hadn’t been up for discussion; but no one was going to pass up a golden opportunity.
The committee chair, Meg Hillier, got the ball rolling. Could we start off by talking about the honours system? It had been reported that Zahawi had been up for a knighthood until his unpaid taxes had come to someone’s attention in the Cabinet Office. So was it true that HMRC was regularly consulted on the suitability of candidates submitted for honours? Harra smiled. As if he couldn’t wait to dob Zahawi in. He’d had more than enough of people like him trying to avoid their taxes. Besides it was rare for someone from HMRC to be the good guy as far as the public was concerned.
Yup, said Harra. There was a red, amber and green traffic light system. (We can probably assume that Zahawi was a big, shiny red. Because the Tories would have been falling over themselves to find a way to give baubles to one of their own. So for Zahawi to fail the vetting, it must have been clearcut.) I see, said Hillier. And was there a similar traffic light system for appointing ministers? Unfortunately not. It was generally – if foolishly – believed that all ministers filled in their tax returns and paid what was due. One for the to do list.
Harra went on. Mentioning no names but – ZAHAWI – HMRC was bound to respect client confidentiality. But if ZAHAWI gave him permission, he would be happy to talk through every error on his tax return with the prime minister’s ethics adviser. He was sure it would be an extremely fruitful discussion. All ZAHAWI had to do was say the word and he would make himself available. He couldn’t imagine for a second why ZAHAWI might be reluctant.
Sarah Olney and Peter Grant were keen to explore the concept of carelessness. We were back in the ontological territory of careless carelessness and careless negligence. Harra was again happy to help out. Innocent mistakes would attract no penalties. And ZAHAWI had copped a 30% fine. A substantial penalty. People could work out what that meant for themselves. Harra couldn’t believe his luck. After decades of being the people’s enemy he was at last a hero of the common man.
Over at the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Dowden, was doing his best to commit no news on the ethics of Zahawi’s appointment. It wasn’t altogether effective. Dowden is as feeble-minded and hopeless as Rish! so it wasn’t hard to imagine almost no due diligence being done.
But Dowden appeared to be delighted to be eclipsed by his civil servant, Alex Chisholm, who told the committee that £220k had been set aside for Boris Johnson’s defence before the privileges committee. Great. If it wasn’t bad enough to have had a prime minister who casually broke his own lockdown rules, we now have to fork out for his legal fees as he tries to lie his way out of trouble. At times like this, you know the country is broken. The government is just taking the piss.