Sunday 29 January 2023

Why Wasn't Zahawi Sacked Sooner?

I spoke far too soon. Boris Johnson was all set to be the source of Tory woe this weekend, and then Rishi Sunak went and sacked Nadhim Zahawi, ensuring the latest exposure of the former Prime Minister was drowned out by comment and coverage about the Tory chair. Johnson truly has the luck of the devil, which cannot be said of those who came after him. Least of all the hapless incumbent at Number 10.

Sunak got himself into an entirely unnecessary pickle. Surely someone, somewhere close to him had kept an eye on the developing Zahawi tax avoidance scandal, what with the solicitors' letters flying about and a few column inches of press coverage before the papers were splashing on his financial affairs. Where was the chief whip? Under questions from Keir Starmer at the last-but-one Prime Minister's Questions, Sunak said he was satisfied that Zahawi had given him a full explanation and there was nothing more to be said. When the news of the avoidance and penalty was made public, Sunak had a simple choice. Give him the sack or delay pending an inquiry, as per his statements at last week's PMQs. And Sunak preferred to delay, causing himself unnecessary political pain. Why did he make the masochistic choice?

As written here many times before, the authoritarian Prime Minister is central to neoliberal statecraft, and particularly so for the Conservative Party. Being seen to let go a naughty minister at the first sign of press trouble can be construed as being overly concerned with spin and therefore vulnerable to unfriendly headlines, a position no party leader would like to be in. But if they dig their heels in and resists the pressure, they're liable to take damage if revelations don't go away. Sunak has been here before with the always charming Suella Braverman. On that occasion he kept hold because her attacks on refugees are central to his political strategy. I.e. Offer nothing and hope unsubtle racism will carry enough of the voters who went Tory on Brexity grounds. If it worked back in October, why not now?

A key difference for Sunak, however, is that Braverman was not economical with the actualite to his face. Zahawi forgot to tell his boss that he paid HMRC a £3.7m penalty to clear up his tax affairs, and therefore made him look like a fool. But even then, when the case was clear on Wednesday Sunak didn't sack him but announced an inquiry by his ethics advisor. Again, why? It wasn't out of love for constitutional proprieties, but a sense of uncertainty about how the party might react. Zahawi isn't backbench boy band material, no one has ever thrown their knickers at him, but Sunak is aware of what his MPs and the wider membership think of tax issues. Just see the moaning during the week when Jeremy Hunt ruled out big tax cuts in the next budget. Where Sunak has misjudged is that he stuck too rigidly to his Braverman script, and was seemingly unaware that Zahawi was making him look like a mug and, indeed, the party knew that regardless of what they thought about tax, the affair was proving more damaging. Therefore, Sunak has shown once again that he just doesn't have the feel for the wider party that Johnson, and arguably, Liz Truss have.

The calls now for the disgraced Nadhim Zahawi to step down from Parliament are unlikely to be heeded. More interesting is who Sunak decides to replace him with. Hilariously, Johnson has been touted by Jacob Rees-Mogg, because why not? But also the walking tabloid headline writer, Lee Anderson, has been on the internal WhatsApp campaigning for the Tory chair job. Vying with Jonathan Gullis for the title of worst MP, it will undoubtedly go to another briefcase carrying crony. But with Sunak's judgement all over the shop, who knows?

1 comment:

Shadeburst said...

Western democracy is largely in the unfortunate position where the leader of the state also has to be the head of the party. Very few pols are up to it. Trump could win an election but he couldn't lead a ****-up in a brothel. Now that Pelosi is gone, Biden is doomed. Angela has it, so did Barack. Sunak strikes me as being somewhat milquetoast. Boris was like something you stepped in and said "Eww." The Americans have their DNC which is so effective that it can overcome even major gaffes by its frontmen. Everyone should learn from that.