Rishi Sunak would now show zero tolerance. Except to Braverman. Or Raab | John Crace

Prime minister tries to come out fighting over Nadhim Zahawi and a collapsing NHS

Rishi Sunak wanted to talk tough. Zero tolerance tough.

Actually, he didn’t. What he really wanted to natter about at his latest PM Disconnect in Darlington – his chance to not meet the people – was how he had a cunning plan to deal with the crisis in the NHS. How he was going to build 40 new waiting rooms to ease the pressure on A&E and make provision for more people to be treated at home next winter. Those that hadn’t already died at home this winter at any rate.

There wouldn’t be any extra money for more doctors or nurses, so the plan rather depended on the government being able to improve the 130,000 staff shortage in the NHS. Hell, he’d even set up a few recruitment centres at food banks. No one was going to accuse him of not understanding his target market. But just in case there were no extra staff, then patients would be trained to treat themselves. Even now, the Department of Health was uploading do-it-yourself open-heart surgery on YouTube.

But Darlington was a tougher crowd than Rish! had hoped. Turns out that people don’t really like being talked down to by an awkward tech bro with few interpersonal skills. There is no sense of connection at a Q&A with Sunak: all you get is what he’s learned from a Goldman Sachs training manual on keeping the lower orders quiet. A rather performative attempt to reassure people that not everyone in the room will be fired. He exudes a coldness. A robotic detachment. What was the point of being part of the global elite if you have to waste time with the little people?

The questions were short and polite. Though asked with no real expectation of getting a straight answer. “This is going to be transformational,” enthused Rish! as he mumbled something unconvincing about his rescue plan for the NHS. Not even Sunak believed what he was saying. Rather it was just another sticking plaster that would have little effect. A headline to get through the day, not a serious effort to address a long-term crisis.

It wasn’t long before everyone got tired of the pretence of talking about imaginary solutions to the NHS and got down to the real story of the day. Or rather yesterday. Sunak’s sacking of Nadhim Zahawi after receiving the report from the ethics adviser at 7am on a Sunday morning. Strange timing … Rish! tried to look disappointed that Zahawi’s name had come up. He had hoped that everyone would have moved on by now. Nothing to see here.

But Sunak was determined to come out fighting. When he had said outside No 10 that he was going to govern with professionalism, accountability and integrity, he had meant every word. Nothing mattered more to him than his integrity. But if he had a fault, it was that he was just too trusting. When cabinet ministers lied to his face, he had no difficulty believing them. So of course, he had asked Zahawi if he had anything he wanted to tell him. Anything a wee bit embarrassing that might come back to bite him.

Er … no. Honest Nadhim had categorically told Honest Rish! that he had nothing to hide. And who hasn’t forgotten they had filled in their tax forms wrongly. No, no, no, he wasn’t going to use the term “dishonestly”. Though the ethics adviser had said Honest Nadhim showed “insufficient regard” for the requirements of ministers to be honest and open. But these things were always far more complicated than they seemed. Honest Rish! knew from experience that if the super-rich had a fault, it was that they always tended to carelessly pay far more tax than was due. So it had come as a huge shock to him that Honest Nadhim had paid £3.7m too little. And been hit with a fine in excess of £1m. But no harm done. It was all paid. Nothing to see here.

Yes, said the media. That’s all very well. But you must have known about Honest Nadhim’s local tax difficulties before you appointed him as party chair. Because there had been stories running in the newspapers about him as early as July last year. And someone in government must have read them. So only an uncurious idiot would have failed to ask Honest Nadhim for tax avoidance advice at his pre-appointment meeting.

“Hands up,” said Honest Rish!. “That’s me. I can be such a scatter-brain.” He knew there was something he had been meaning to ask Honest Nadhim but in the excitement of the moment it had completely slipped his mind. Hand on heart, Honest Rish! had been the only person in Westminster not to have heard even a whisper that Zahawi was a wrong ’un.

But that was then. Now Sunak was determined to do much, much better. He was going to be the prime minister with zero tolerance for his cabinet members who broke the ministerial code. Even for people like Honest Nadhim who had only been found to break the code on seven separate occasions. No more Mr Nice Guy. From now on it was one strike and you’re out. Vive integrity!

OK … So that must mean he was going to sack Suella Braverman. After all she had been sacked by Liz Truss – imagine being so useless, you’re sacked by Librium Liz – for breaking the ministerial code just six days before Honest Rish! had reappointed her as home secretary. All perfectly normal.

Oh, that zero tolerance? He hadn’t meant that zero tolerance. Braverman would be allowed to stay on as she had actually admitted she had done wrong and apologised. How could anyone not be moved by such sincere contrition? He was just waiting for Dominic “Psycho” Raab to admit he was a bully – not that he had heard any rumours and even if he had he would have stuck his fingers in his ears – and say sorry and then everyone could be friends again. Onwards and upwards.

Time for one final question: how was Sunak planning to celebrate the third anniversary of Brexit on Tuesday? Rish! thought for a bit. There were so many triumphs from which to choose. The cost of living. The worst performing economy in the G20 bar Russia. Businesses folding. Inflation. Trade stalled. It was all going so well. All hail the supreme leader!


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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