There’s an old optical illusion that does the rounds every so often. Created by the surrealist artist Sandro Del-Prete, “Message d’Amour des Dauphins” depicts… well it depends how you look at it. Maybe you’ll see nine dolphins innocently swimming around, or maybe your eyes will detect an amorous couple locked in an intimate embrace. You can squint and move between these two very different visions, but once you’ve see the act of obscenity it’s impossible not to see it.
As with sex so with politics. However much we might grumble about Westminster sleaze, for the most part we pretend not to see it. The scandals get spun, the government brushes them off, and the story moves on. But once the mood shifts, the optics suddenly change. You can’t pretend to see the dolphins any more.
Take the row over the Tory party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi. The key point is not the facts about his tax affairs, damning though they are, but the timing. The murky arrangements that led to the dispute with HMRC – over whether Zahawi should have paid capital gains tax on the sale of shares in YouGov – date back to 2000, a decade before he became an MP. We don’t know exactly when he became aware that HMRC was asking awkward questions. But it has been reported that the government’s propriety and ethics team was informed before his appointment as chancellor by Boris Johnson in July 2022, so he must have had a pretty good idea of how serious things were by then. It is reasonable to assume that the three successive prime ministers who appointed him to their cabinets – Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – did too. Presumably they didn’t think it mattered that at the time he was a senior member of their front bench, he was or had recently been embroiled in negotiations that would leave him with a tax bill estimated to be as much as £5m, and thought to include a big fine. Nor that he reportedly hit the Independent and the tax expert Dan Neidle with legal threats.
Now Sunak, with the speed and grace of an arthritic rhino, has referred the matter to his independent ethics adviser. So many questions abound. How can anyone make a “careless and not deliberate” error that leaves them with a tax bill more than 150 times the average UK salary? How can a man in the middle of a tax dispute with HMRC be allowed to become the head of the Treasury? And if you had been made prime minister after originally coming second in a party leadership contest, and had yourself attracted scandal while chancellor when your wife’s non-dom tax status was exposed, wouldn’t you be on the lookout for something exactly like this?
There has been less incredulity about the revelations regarding Boris Johnson’s £800,000 loan, secured in late 2020 when he was prime minister – in part thanks to the endeavours of Richard Sharp. Formerly a banker at Goldman Sachs, Sharp has donated to the Conservative Party and in January 2021 was made chairman of the BBC on the recommendation of Johnson and Oliver Dowden, then culture secretary.
His appointment doesn’t look good, and is ideal ammunition for the next time Robbie Gibb, the former director of communications for Theresa May whom Johnson installed on the BBC board, decides to lecture staff on perceived left-wing bias at the national broadcaster.
Sunak, evidently hoping that the problem will go away, has called the appointment process “transparent and rigorous”. But for an administration supposedly built on “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, as Sunak comically promised, there have been a lot of scandals in the three months since he became Prime Minister: the departure of Gavin Williamson over allegations of bullying; persistent calls for the departure of Dominic Raab over allegations of bullying; the appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary six days after she resigned from the same role for a security breach, and Sunak’s continued faith in her despite a series of migrant processing failures. And now, Zahawi’s dodgy taxes.
The point is not that Sunak has stacked his cabinet with familiar faces of dubious integrity – although that may be the case. It’s that the embarrassments keep coming, and he seems powerless to stop them. All governments are full of egocentrics (it’s what gets them into power in the first place) susceptible to causing trouble. But most of them have the wit, skills and energy to deflect potential problems before they gain a reputation for ineptitude.
This prime minister doesn’t even have the political acumen to wear a seatbelt on camera, or to realise that asking a homeless man if he’s “in business” while serving him food at a Christmas drop-in centre might come across as clueless.
Rishi Sunak’s government is not markedly more scandal-prone than previous ones. Look at what Boris Johnson got away with, and let’s recall, too, the dying days of the John Major administration. But, whether because Sunak is too inexperienced a politician to spin effectively, or because the public has simply tired of scandal and crisis after 13 years of Tory rule, the gloss has come off.
This is a government in its death throes, struggling under the weight of the incompetence and impropriety of its predecessors, with none of the illusion. We all know what we’re looking at. We can’t unsee it. There can be no more pretence of dolphins.
This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better