The Guardian view on Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi: a judgment call | Editorial

The prime minister’s reluctance to express an opinion on the known facts of the case is a sign of political weakness

There are two reasons why Rishi Sunak might not know the details of Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. Either the prime minister didn’t ask, or he did, and the Tory chairman didn’t answer fully. In both scenarios, Mr Sunak looks weak. His political antennae should have been twitching at the first hint of trouble around the finances of a Conservative cabinet minister.

Mr Zahawi was chancellor, albeit very briefly. How he manages money, his dispute with HMRC and its resolution in a penalty of several million pounds are matters of public interest. So too are the threats of legal action against journalists who sought to establish the facts, indicating something short of a commitment to transparency and accountability.

Mr Sunak should not have to refer the issue to an ethics adviser when considering whether to keep Mr Zahawi in his post. It is ultimately a question of political judgment. Crude self-interest should have spurred the prime minister to action. In parliament on Wednesday he even acknowledged that efficient resolution would be “the politically expedient thing to do”, but sought instead to cast equivocation as leadership, and incuriosity as a point of principle.

This badly misjudges the nature of Mr Sunak’s predicament. His first pledge on entering Downing Street was “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of government”. Implicit in that declaration was a repudiation of habits that degraded Downing Street when Liz Truss and Boris Johnson were in occupancy – the parade of arrogance, shamelessness, complacency and venality that brought UK politics into disrepute and sent the Conservative party poll rating into freefall.

To reverse that trend, Mr Sunak needed to demand the very highest standards of his ministers and be seen to be ruthless in their enforcement. It is a test he has already failed. One explanation for his hesitancy might be squeamishness around questions of personal taxation and private fortunes.

Mr Sunak had a relatively smooth ascent through the Conservative ranks until reports about his wife’s non-domiciled status caused turbulence. He handled it badly, coming across as peevish and defensive, when the situation required candour and humility. He acted as if legitimate questions about his finances were an egregious invasion of his privacy.

Now it is a cabinet minister whose tax affairs are in the spotlight, and the prime minister treats the expectation of transparency as an affront to justice and due process. It is not clear what discovery he expects his ethics adviser to make that might magic away facts that are already known: the penalty levied for non-payment of taxes, and the steps taken by Mr Zahawi to impede scrutiny of his record.

Mr Sunak’s knowledge of the case has, by his own admission, changed since last week. He used to believe there was nothing to investigate. Now he sees that there is, because “more information” has come to light, but he cannot say what question he thinks still needs answering, nor is it obvious why he can’t summon the Tory chair and pose it himself.

The prime minister finds himself in a political hole, and his response is a plea for time to do more digging. “Trust is earned, and I will earn yours,” he told the nation when he was first appointed. But instead of building reserves of public confidence, Mr Sunak seems determined to squander what little he already has.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
After the fall of Nadhim Zahawi, many taxing questions remain | Letters
Letters: Readers on the sacking of the Tory party chair after he was found to have breached the ministerial code by failing to declare an HMRC investigation into his tax affairs

30, Jan, 2023 @5:53 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the tax system: losing trust, missing out on billions | Editorial
Editorial: Even as millions are sweating over self-assessment forms ahead of this month’s deadline, HMRC dishes up big dollops of bad news


19, Jan, 2023 @6:25 PM

Article image
Nadhim Zahawi sacking: the questions still facing Rishi Sunak
Decision came out of the blue, say sources, as Tory MPs ask what prime minister knew and when

Jessica Elgot and Pippa Crerar

30, Jan, 2023 @8:01 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Tory millionaires: a party of the rich, for the rich | Editorial
Editorial: The inability to remove his own party chair after a multimillion-pound tax mistake underlines Rishi Sunak’s weakness


23, Jan, 2023 @6:52 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on non-dom tax status: them not us | Editorial
Editorial: The chancellor’s wife may have breached no law, but her deliberate choice sends a socially divisive message


07, Apr, 2022 @5:48 PM

Article image
Sunak’s job was to unclog Westminster’s fatberg of sleaze. His handling of Zahawi was entirely right | Simon Jenkins
Zahawi’s failings and Sunak’s response would not have merited such a ballyhoo anywhere else, says the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

30, Jan, 2023 @4:02 PM

Article image
How many divers will Rishi Sunak need to plumb the murky depths of Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs? | Marina Hyde
The former chancellor once said of Boris Johnson that he should ‘do the right thing’ and go. It could be time for him to take his own advice, says Guardian columnist Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde

24, Jan, 2023 @1:40 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Rishi Sunak: back to the future | Editorial
Editorial: The chancellor’s speech signals that he wants to debate spending cuts, not increases


05, Oct, 2020 @5:57 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Tory electoral prospects: dimming by the day | Editorial
Editorial: Rebellions and magical thinking have made the Conservatives look both arrogant and divided


30, Jan, 2023 @6:45 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s cabinet: new faces, not a new direction | Editorial
Editorial: The prime minister represents the triumph of a politics where some of the people are fooled all of the time


16, Sep, 2021 @6:04 PM