When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in October, he stood on the steps of No 10 and made a promise to the electorate.
In the wake of a tumultuous, rabid and scandal-filled few months for the Conservative Party, Sunak promised that his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.
“Trust is earned,” he said, “and I will earn yours.”
Yet just as parliament returns from Easter recess, so too does a familiar stench in the Tory party.
Earlier today, 17 April, an investigation was announced by the parliamentary standards commissioner into whether Sunak failed to declare an interest in a childminder agency, Koru Kids, that may benefit from a government pilot to incentivise new childminders. Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, is a shareholder in the company, and it is alleged that he had failed to properly declare this in parliament. In response, Downing Street said the Prime Minister will clarify how it was declared as a ministerial interest, rather than to the Commons.
The Tories have been desperately trying to craft a new beginning for themselves with Sunak. The poll chasm to Labour has narrowed after some policy successes gave the PM a semblance of seriousness and competence. Finding an agreement over post-Brexit trade with the EU in Northern Ireland – the Windsor agreement – was a coup for the government, and the substantial childcare offering in the spring Budget has, generally, been welcomed. Support within the party for Sunak had also seemingly neutralised threats from both Boris Johnson and hard-line Brexiteers. It looked as if the Conservatives were beginning to repair their reputation.
However, though the investigation announced today has not yet drawn any conclusions, it shows Sunak struggling to stay free of scandal; he may even be garnering a reputation as “continuity Boris Johnson”, given the number of sleaze allegations that surrounded the former prime minister and his government. Sunak’s deputy PM, Dominic Raab, remains in post despite a slew of bullying accusations. Though he did act, eventually, to remove Nadhim Zahawi as Tory chairman after it was revealed the MP was forced to pay a penalty to HM Revenue & Customs over his tax affairs.
Then there is Sunak’s own record. In January, he was fined for failing to wear a seat belt in a moving car while filming a video for social media. Prior to that, he was the only MP other than Johnson to be given a fixed-penalty notice for attending Covid-rule-breaking parties during the lockdown. As chancellor during the pandemic, Sunak also faced widespread criticism over the billions that were wasted on the procurement of personal protective equipment, much of which was poor quality or too expensive. Sunak’s failure to declare a potential conflict of interest in Koru Kids has left him open to the accusation that he believes himself, and the party, to be above the rules.
Issues with Murty’s finances have already presented a number of difficulties for the Prime Minister. Last year it was revealed that she benefited from the non-dom status, which allowed her to avoid paying tax on money earned abroad – something she gave up shortly after. Murty’s stake, valued at £900m, in the IT services and consultancy company Infosys shone another uncomfortable light when it was revealed that the company continued to operate in Russia despite Sunak’s own calls for British companies to pull out of business to “inflict maximum pain” on Vladimir Putin’s government.
Whatever the outcome of the latest investigation, it only adds to the sense that Sunak is not too different from what came before.