Katherine Seymour/ Head of Politics
Nadhim Zahawi was sacked by Rishi Sunak on Sunday (29th January) following revelations about his tax affairs not having been up to date when he became Chancellor following Sunak’s resignation from the position last July.
The report found that while HMRC began conversations with Zahawi in April 2021, the then vaccines minister maintained that he was not under investigation for his tax affairs until July 2022
Rishi Sunak commissioned a report by his new ethics advisor (Sir Laurie Magnus) following growing reports into Zahawi’s tax affairs at the start of 2023. The report found that while HMRC began conversations with Zahawi in April 2021, the then vaccines minister maintained that he was not under investigation for his tax affairs until July 2022 – despite reports coming out just 5 days before which he had described as “smears”. The settlement, which was to come in August 2022, has been reported to have cost Zahawi £5m by the BBC. Sir Laurie Magnus ultimately found that Zahawi broke the ministerial code on several occasions by failing to report the updates around the HMRC investigation which he was under.
The report found that Zahawi had “shown insufficient regard for the general principles of the ministerial code, under the requirements in particular … to be honest, open and an exemplary leader through his own behaviour”.
Sunak quickly sacked Zahawi, announcing it by 9am on Sunday, about 2 hours after he received the report. However, it has been argued that Sunak could have easily come to this conclusion a few weeks ago with senior officials carrying out a few hours of work which would have allowed him to dodge days of damaging headlines and backbenchers questioning his judgement as Prime Minister by keeping Zahawi in post. Following the announcement of the decision, David Cameron’s former director of communications Sir Craig Oliver said: “Rishi Sunak knew nothing this morning that he didn’t know a week ago – he will be lamenting feeling unable to stand up to some backbenchers.”
However, Sunak defended himself the following day saying that “It relates to things that happened well before I was prime minister, so unfortunately I can’t change what happened in the past,” he said. “What you can hold me accountable for is: what did you do about it? What I did, as soon as I knew about the situation, was appoint someone independent, looked at it, got the advice and then acted pretty decisively.” On the other hand, Deputy leader Angela Rayner called Mr Sunak a “hopelessly weak” prime minister who had “been dragged kicking and screaming into doing what he should have done long ago”. She continued, “Rishi Sunak shouldn’t have needed an ethics adviser to tell him that Nadhim Zahawi’s position was untenable”. Angela Rayner and Aneliese Dodds wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to “come clean” about when he really found out about Zahawi’s tax affairs. The opposition responses suggest that this will be a political issue for some time. Many have argued that the speed at which Sunak took action was simply not quick enough as he spent a week defending Zahawi’s actions.
Sunak’s premiership began with a promise of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” of government.
Sunak’s premiership began with a promise of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” of government. However, the loss of two cabinet members since he became Prime Minister are in direct conflict with this assertion. With an ongoing investigation into Dominic Raab, his deputy Prime Minister, and the loss of two cabinet members (Nadhim Zahawi and Gavin Williamson) in his first 100 days in office, his promise to the nation has been seen to be truly under threat. With many holding the belief that Raab will go too, it has been questioned whether Sunak’s promise could have been listened to as he presides over what many have seen as a cabinet culture full of sleaze allegations.