Sunak is far too weak to root out the sleaze in the Conservative party

The prime minister cannot escape from the shadow of the Johnson government

January 25, 2023
Photo: Malcolm Park / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Malcolm Park / Alamy Stock Photo

The government looks not just dead but rotting. It is mired in sleaze, led by a weak prime minister who not only appears unable to root it out but has himself become tainted by a second police fine in less than a year. Sunak’s offence, while fairly minor (not wearing a rear seat belt while filming in his chauffeur-driven car for social media), shows yet again that sureness of touch is not his strong suit. It also makes him part of a story of wrongdoing that is engulfing his government like an out-of-control blaze.

The Nadhim Zahawi tax scandal, and the equally astonishing revelations around Richard Sharp’s appointment as BBC chair, are alarming events in their own right. It beggars belief that a cabinet minister, let alone a former chancellor, could be fined for unpaid tax running into millions of pounds without resigning immediately. So too the idea that a top banker could help arrange a huge loan for the prime minister and then be appointed to run the national broadcaster, without declaring the fact.

The collapse of standards in public life exhibited by these events is epic. They paint the Boris Johnson government ever more like a bacchanalia at public expense.

Worse for Sunak is that he cannot escape from the shadow of Johnson, who was prime minister when Zahawi was appointed as chancellor and Sharp as the BBC chairman. “Partygate” was not just an event that helped to destroy the Johnson government, but one incident in a lengthening tapestry of malfeasance which will continue until the general election. Any chance of Rishi becoming the “clean skin” in the public mind has pretty much evaporated. Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor, said at the weekend that the next Labour government would have to “drain the swamp”—Trumpite language turned against the right to deadly effect.

Nothing could do more to reinforce the image of today’s Tories as rich, entitled and “in it for themselves”. In my view, Sunak was already the first two by force of personal circumstance. He will now be tarred with the third too, by association. The scandal over his wife’s non-dom status will not have helped perceptions.

This is compounded by Sunak’s obvious political weakness. He couldn’t bring himself to sack Zahawi this week, but instead set in train an ethics enquiry which might take months—and may not even then remove the Tory party chairman. Whether this is out of personal loyalty, party constraints or fear of the precedent for other looming personnel problems—like the bullying allegations against his deputy prime minister Dominic Raab—matters not. Sunak increasingly leads not so much a government as a rogues’ gallery.

Nor has Sunak criticised the BBC appointment of Sharp, a Tory donor who also just happens to be his former boss at Goldman Sachs. Ironically, a weakened Sharp may have the effect of restoring the critical facilities of the BBC when it comes to the government in general and Brexit in particular. Muting the BBC was surely part of the reason why Johnson was so keen to have a tame chairman in Broadcasting House in the first place. BBC News has this week been notably robust in reporting the travails of its own chair.

However, arguably none of these controversies represent the biggest modern crisis of standards in public life. For the biggest casualties of the Johnson administration were truth and good government, and they too show no sign of being restored under Sunak. But then Sunak was an original Brexiter. And truth and Brexit are uneasy bedfellows.