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1 February 2023

PMQs: Keir Starmer takes the Commons on a tour of Tory scandals

From Nahim Zahawi to Dominic Raab to Boris Johnson… is Rishi Sunak too weak to deal with his own party?

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer took the House of Commons on a tour of the scandals swamping the government at Prime Minister’s Questions today. First up were the unanswered questions over what Rishi Sunak knew exactly about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs when he appointed him as chair of the Conservative Party

You may have thought this scandal was over, with the investigation by the ethics adviser Laurie Magnus completed and Zahawi out the door. But Labour wants to squeeze as much political advantage out of it as possible by casting Sunak’s government as a mere continuation of Johnsonian sleaze. 

And there are unanswered questions. Zahawi reportedly claims he did tell officials about HMRC’s investigation and the penalty he paid before his appointment as Tory chairman. Whereas Magnus’s report suggests he didn’t. “Did his now former chair tell government officials that he was under investigation by the tax man before or after the Prime Minister appointed him?” Starmer asked the Prime Minister. Sunak didn’t answer. He simply referred to the investigation. Will the PM make the same mistake of trying to avoid the inevitable, then caving and giving a more detailed account of what he knew and when? Or does the Magnus investigation give him sufficient political cover to move on? Let’s see.  

Next up was the probe into bullying accusations against Dominic Raab. Sunak can’t run away from this because the investigation is ongoing. Some Tory MPs, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, have suggested that the accusations against Raab aren’t sufficiently serious for him to be sacked. On the one hand, Sunak needs to draw a line under the growing perception that his government is riddled with scandal. On the other, he doesn’t want to annoy any MPs and ministers who might see the dismissal of Raab as a colleague being sacrificed due to political pressure.

Back to the chamber. In response to Starmer’s question about Raab, Sunak attacked Labour with its relationship to unions. A little beside the point given the matter at hand. However, in another answer he accused the Labour leader of not standing up for women in his party. It was a reference to the hostile treatment given by some in his party to Rosie Duffield, an MP who has frequently spoken about transgender issues. This might have political traction. Starmer may need to address this more definitively if he wants to continue framing Sunak as too weak to deal with problems in his own party.

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Finally, the Labour leader raised the question of whether Boris Johnson received a loan facility from his distant cousin, Sam Blyth. It’s worth noting, as we discussed on last week’s New Statesman Podcast, that the timing of the investigation into Boris Johnson was fortunate for Sunak. The moment the Zahawi scandal entered the spotlight would have been ideal for Johnson’s series of interventions on Ukraine, such as when he called for Britain to send fighter jets. The former prime minister could have cashed in on the contrast between his record on Ukraine and Sunak’s weak grip on the Tory party.

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Instead, the reverse happened: those Conservative MPs who Johnson needs to win over if he wants to mount a comeback to No 10 were reminded of the very reason they got rid of him.

Read more on the Tory scandals:

Will Dominic Raab be the next to go?

The Zahawi affair only proves the power of journalism

The hapless Mr Sunak

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