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26 January 2023

Why Rishi Sunak’s indecision over Nadhim Zahawi makes him look weak

The public prefers the Prime Minister to his party, but he now risks being tarnished by the Conservatives’ brand.

By Freddie Hayward

Obfuscate and delay. Launch an investigation. Buy some time and let the media frenzy move on. Boris Johnson finessed the tactic during partygate and it’s usually a smart move. But Rishi Sunak’s referral of Nadhim Zahawi to his ethics adviser on Monday came too late: momentum had built and Sunak’s credibility was under threat.

This is a problem of his own making. The Prime Minister has said he didn’t know Nahawi had paid a penalty to HMRC last week. His party chairman therefore hadn’t told him. Nor had his Cabinet Secretary. But worst of all, as Rachel noted in her PMQs review, Sunak didn’t find out the facts before he arose at the despatch box last week and said the matter had been addressed “in full”.

Sunak was meant to be the details man. The guy on top of things. Beyond the oversight, not foreseeing that the opposition would link the Zahawi affair to his wife’s former non-dom status was yet another example of his poor political judgement. A pattern is forming of Sunak not anticipating trouble.

The public still prefers Sunak to his party but the Prime Minister risks being tarnished by the Conservatives’ brand, while he is unlikely to be burnishing theirs. That problem is compounded by his failure to distance himself from his party. The “I’ve solved all those things you hated about Boris Johnson” line doesn’t work as well when you let bad behaviour go unpunished.

[See also: Why Labour thinks it has solved the Brexit conundrum]

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Sunak’s indecision over Zahawi also makes him look weak. And Keir Starmer knows it. The Labour leader’s strategy at PMQs in recent weeks has been to portray Sunak as useless, hoping to further sink his “effectiveness as prime minister” rating. In the chamber yesterday, Starmer pivoted from accusation to mockery. “Is he starting to wonder if this job is just too big for him?” he said, prodding the PM for his diminutive stature. The criticism fits the crisis: the problems facing the country make a strong leader even more attractive.

Some Tory MPs thought a change in leader would solve their problems. They were confident in the rigour of the leadership contest when they brought down Boris Johnson. When I queried senior rebels about Johnson’s replacement last summer, “Trust the process” was a frequent response. That’s not to say Johnson would be better: he remains repellent to many. But the problems with the Tory brand – internal strife, a poor economy, a failing NHS and the fatigue of 12 years in office – outlive a change in leader, and Rishi Sunak is running out of time. 

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Once you’ve seen the true extent of Tory sleaze, it’s impossible to unsee it]

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