Monday briefing: How Nadhim Zahawi was fired from government

In today’s newsletter: Why did it take Rishi Sunak so long, and what exactly was the Tory party chair guilty of?

Good morning. After 10 embarrassing days for the government, Rishi Sunak finally fired the Tory party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, after a damning investigation by the prime minister’s ethics adviser found Zahawi had committed multiple breaches of the ministerial code by first failing to declare that he was under investigation by HMRC and then that he had paid a penalty. Sunak’s detractors have accused the prime minister of weakness for not acting sooner, but he has insisted that he had to go through the proper procedures before making any decision.

While Zahawi’s dismissal marks the end of this particular episode of Tory party mess, the news comes as Sunak battles to maintain control of his party, with his deputy also under investigation after multiple allegations of bullying staff. The firing has also further damaged the reputation of a government already marred by accusations of sleaze. Today’s newsletter looks at what has been said so far and what is next for the embattled prime minister.

Five big stories

  1. Police | Documents obtained by the Guardian show a tense exchange between Cressida Dick and the London mayor’s office during her ousting last year. The documents reveal that Dick sought £500,000 to stand down as commissioner of the Metropolitan police. In the end, she agreed to a six-month payout as well as an additional payment of two months’ salary, totalling £165,727.36.

  2. NHS | A report by the Medical Defence Union has found that four in 10 doctors and dental professionals are likely to quit by 2028 over “intolerable” pressures. Health officials have said this exodus of staff is “deeply concerning” as there are already 133,000 NHS vacancies in England alone.

  3. Israel | Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a series of punitive measures against Palestinians after a terrorist attack outside a synagogue in Jerusalem killed seven Israelis. All of the measures are illegal under international law, and are likely to inflame tensions with the Palestinian public and the Palestinian Authority.

  4. Immigration | The Home Office has published details of a £70m contract to put asylum seekers into controversial accommodation centres. There is little detail about how these centres would operate, but Paul Hook, the director of Asylum Matters, has said that they “blur the line between detention and accommodation”.

  5. Tunisia | Just 11% of the electorate turned out to vote in the parliamentary runoffs on Sunday, in another blow to President Kais Saied’s legitimacy. The low participation is evidence of the widespread public disdain of Saied, who stripped the legislature of its power in 2021 and granted himself almost unlimited powers.

In depth: A ‘serious breach’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi in October.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi in October. Photograph: Simon Walker/HM Treasury/No10 Crown Copyright/eyevine

Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, was not investigating the details of Nahim Zahawi’s tax affairs – despite denials and legal threats to the contrary, it turned out HMRC had already done a thorough job of that. Rather, Magnus was tasked with examining how Zahawi had dealt with the situation, prior to and after the accusations were made public, and whether his actions lined up with the ministerial code.

The findings were clear: Zahawi was guilty, on multiple counts, of a “serious breach”. First was his failure to declare that he was under investigation by HMRC when appointed chancellor in July 2022. He breached the code again by failing to declare, when he was appointed to Liz Truss’s and then Sunak’s governments, that he had paid a penalty for tax avoidance.

In his report, Magnus highlighted that HMRC began investigating Zahawi in April 2021, meeting with him and his advisers a few months later, while he was a business minister. Zahawi did not disclose this information or alert the relevant government officials then, or when he was promoted to education secretary by Boris Johnson in September, despite the fact that ministers are supposed to complete a declaration of interests form that includes “specific prompts to tax affairs and HMRC investigations and disputes”. Nor did he mention the investigation when he was promoted to chancellor almost a year later. Zahawi also failed to raise the issue when he paid a penalty to HMRC.

In the following months, Zahawi was made chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Liz Truss and then given the role of party chair by Rishi Sunak. Despite media reports of Zahawi’s tax affairs, he still did not make a declaration. Instead he went on the attack, threatening those involved with legal action and describing reports of the investigation as “inaccurate, unfair and clearly smears”. (Heather Stewart and Josh Halliday have written a comprehensive timeline of events.)

In conclusion, Magnus writes: “I cannot mitigate my overall judgment that Mr Zahawi’s conduct as a Minister has fallen below the high standards that, as Prime Minister, you rightly expect from those who serve in your government.”


Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Despite the evidence-based clarity and candour of Magnus’s report, there has been a marked absence of contrition in Zahawi’s public response. He has opted for barely concealed defiance, boasting of his record in government, while criticising the media for its coverage of his tax affairs and omitting his ministerial breaches. The word sorry is acutely missing. With no apology in sight, Zahawi chose to highlight his achievements while in the cabinet, writing that he was particularly proud of the vaccine rollout that he oversaw, and his role in ensuring that “everything went smoothly” during the mourning period after the Queen died.

Zahawi said that he would continue supporting the PM from the backbenches for years to come. So, I guess there are no hard feelings.


A speedy response?

After the publication of the report, Sunak swiftly announced that Zahawi would be removed from government. It was so swift that Michael Gove had to change tack between appearances on Sunday morning news shows. The prime minister wrote that the findings of the investigation show that Zahawi’s actions had violated the pledge that his government “would have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.

Nonetheless, Sunak has been facing more and more questions about his judgment for reappointing Zahawi in the first place – which was after the media had first reported on the claims – and for keeping him in office when it became apparent those reports were correct. While his supporters say that waiting shows he is level-headed and values detail in the face of chaos, many others would argue that Zahawi’s sacking was an inevitability and that Sunak has revealed he is unable to make tough political decisions. There are also questions remaining over what he knew about the minister’s tax affairs and when, with suggestions that Sunak was told there could be a reputational risk to the government when he appointed Zahawi in October.

And it’s not just Zahawi: in his first three months, Sunak’s government has been mired in scandal, with Dominic Raab still awaiting his fate with investigations ongoing into accusations of bullying. While Sunak has been faring better than the Tory party as a whole in the eyes of the public, the poor reputation of his colleagues cannot help but make his government look like a continuation of the chaos that has characterised the party for the past four years.

What else we’ve been reading

Author Michael Rosen, who has written about the death of his son, Eddie.
Author Michael Rosen, who has written about the death of his teenage son, Eddie. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer
  • Michael Rosen (above) writes heartbreakingly about the death of his teenage son, Eddie, in this extract from his new book, Getting Better. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • There are plenty of columns, memoirs and films that touch on sex and relationships; very few of them are written by straight men. Imogen West-Knights explores why that is and why it should change. Nimo

  • As the world braces for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, Sally Howard meets the fans enjoying the renaissance of the plastic poser – from the Düsseldorf-based holder of the biggest collection in the world (18,500) to anthropologist Elizabeth Chin at Occidental College in California. Toby

  • Some of the most popular musicians in the world today tend to have one thing in common: they are almost always solo acts. James Tapper asks: why have bands struggled to find success compared with solo megastars? Nimo

  • I loved this piece by Maria C Hunt on the flourishing Palestinian dining scene in San Francisco. Hunt spoke to the people who are running the cafes, restaurants and grocery stores and the impact that they have had in their communities. Nimo


Novak Djokovic following his Australian Open tennis victory.
Novak Djokovic following his Australian Open victory. Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Tennis | Novak Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), winning the Australian Open for the 10th time. Djokovic tearfully described his victory as the biggest and most challenging triumph of his career.

Football | Non-league Wrexham were pegged back to 3-3 in the final moments against Championship high-flyers Sheffield United to set up a fourth-round replay at Bramall Lane. Liverpool couldn’t even match that, dumped out of the FA Cup 2-1 by Brighton.

Cricket | A century from South Africa captain, Temba Bavuma, laid the platform for a stunning victory as the home side chased down England’s daunting total of 342-7 to win by five wickets with five balls to spare in the second one-day international to seal the series win.

The front pages

Guardian front page, Monday 30 January 2023

“‘A serious failure’: Zahawi forced out over tax claims” is our Guardian lead story this Monday morning. “Rotten to the core” – the Daily Mirror says Rishi Sunak has “finally” sacked Zahawi as the Tories are “engulfed by sleaze”. “Zahawi axed as Sunak gets tough on standards” – that’s the Times while the Daily Telegraph says “PM ‘sacked Zahawi without a fair hearing’”, attributing the complaint to party allies of Zahawi. The i says “Sunak’s allies blame Johnson for Tory sleaze after the PM sacks Zahawi” while the Financial Times has “Sunak sacks Tory party chair Zahawi over ‘serious breach’ of ministers’ code”. “Shamed Zahawi sacked but he’s Nad sorry at all” – the Metro has its little bit of fun. Zahawi is relegated to a puff box on the front of the Daily Express where the lead story is “Boris: Putin told me, I could kill you in a minute”. The Daily Mail uses that story too: “Putin’s threat to kill Boris”.

Today in Focus

Matteo Messina Denaro being escorted out of a Carabinieri police station after he was arrested in Palermo.
Matteo Messina Denaro being escorted out of a Carabinieri police station after he was arrested in Palermo. Photograph: CaraBinieri/Reuters

The code of omertà: how a mafia kingpin evaded police for 30 years
Matteo Messina Denaro was arrested after decades on the run, found hiding in plain sight in Sicily. Lorenzo Tondo and Clare Longrigg report on what it means for the once mighty Cosa Nostra.

Cartoon of the day | Edith Pritchett

Edith Pritchett

Sign up for Inside Saturday to see more of Edith Pritchett’s cartoons, the best Saturday magazine content and an exclusive look behind the scenes

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

A woman looking through a microscope.

Concerns about antibiotic resistance have been worrying doctors for years, as multi-drug-resistant pathogens such as E coli have spread to present a dangerous threat to healthcare across the planet. But now scientists from the John Innes Centre in Norwich think they might have a discovered a solution in a pathogen that causes leaf scald in sugarcane. The new antibiotic – albicidin – attacks bacteria in a completely different way to existing drugs, a group of British, German and Polish scientists wrote in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Catalysis. This suggests a new route could be exploited to tackle bacterial disease, they say. “We could not elicit any resistance towards albicidin in the laboratory,” said Dmitry Ghilarov. “That is why we are really excited – because we think it will be very hard for bacteria to evolve resistance against albicidin-derived antibiotics.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Also try out the Guardian’s new daily word game, Wordiply. Until tomorrow.


Nimo Omer

The GuardianTramp

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