Sunak fights back saying he acted ‘decisively’ by sacking Zahawi over tax fiasco
Rishi Sunak insisted he acted “quite decisively” in sacking Nadhim Zahawi for breaching the ministerial code over his tax affairs as he vowed to restore “integrity” in politics.
The Prime Minister said he had followed the “proper process” as critics argued he should have acted sooner, and the ousted Tory leader’s allies complained he was not being allowed to make his case.
Fighting back after the fiasco, Mr Sunak stressed “integrity is important to me” and vowed to “do whatever it takes to restore integrity in politics”.
But his spokesman said there were no plans to reform the system that allowed him to appoint Mr Zahawi while he was believed to be unaware of his HMRC settlement.
After two weeks of pressure, Mr Sunak sacked the party chairman on Sunday after ministerial interest adviser Sir Laurie Magnus delivered a damning verdict.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a Q&A session at Teesside University in Darlington (Oli Scaff/PA)
The Prime Minister said during a visit to County Durham on Monday: “Based on those facts I was able to make a very quick decision that it was no longer appropriate for Nadhim Zahawi to continue in government.
“It relates to things that happened long before I was Prime Minister, so unfortunately I cannot change what happened in the past.
“What I did, as soon as I knew about the situation, was to appoint someone independently, looked into it, got the advice and then acted quite decisively.”
Mr Zahawi settled his £4.8m tax dispute with HMRC while chancellor under Boris Johnson.
No 10 insists that Mr. Sunak was not aware of any “outstanding issues” when he appointed him party chairman after becoming Prime Minister in October.
However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there were no plans to change the process which requires MPs to “declare all relevant interests” before their appointment.
“I am not aware of any plans to change the long-standing approach, which means that ministers are required to declare any relevant interests, adhere to the ministerial code and face sanctions if they fail to do so, ” he said.
Allies of Mr Zahawi claim the MP lost his job after being given only a limited time to make his case, with the Telegraph citing claims suggesting he was only given a 30-minute meeting with the independent adviser has to defend himself.
Downing Street figures dispute claims from those around Mr Zahawi, insisting there were two talks with Sir Laurie.
Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “We have not set a time limit for the adviser and he is free to carry out the investigation to establish the facts, and complete his work when he feels he has done so .
“He could talk to whomever he wanted in that process and we are confident that he established the facts.”
The official was forced to defend Mr Sunak’s decision to re-appoint Suella Braverman as Home Secretary just six days after she was forced out due to a security breach.
“Suella Braverman resigned and admitted the mistake she made – she took responsibility for her actions,” the spokesperson said. “It was on that basis that the prime minister decided to re-appoint her.”
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab remains under investigation over alleged bullying of civil servants after an inquiry was launched in November.
The letter from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to Nadhim Zahawi who was sacked as chairman of the Conservative Party (10 Downing Street/PA)
Mr Zahawi did not comment explicitly on the row in his letter to the Prime Minister after his sacking, instead taking aim at the media as he complained “about the behavior of some of the fourth estates in recent weeks”.
The Liberal Democrats have written to Mr Sunak saying he must now strip Mr Zahawi of the Tory whip if he refuses to stand down as the MP for Stratford-on-Avon.
Deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Sunak has been dragging its feet over this scandal for weeks. He needs to act fast now if he is serious about restoring integrity to this sleazy Conservative government.”
Labor leader Anneliese Dodds said her party had also written to the prime minister to ask when he found out about the HMRC investigation into the former Conservative Party chairman, adding that the prime minister “needs a backbone” and should have sacked Mr Zahawi earlier did because “the facts” were clear”.
“There are serious questions for Rishi Sunak to answer. What did he know about the investigation into Nadhim Zahawi, the amount of money he paid in unpaid taxes and the fine he had to pay?” she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“Why did Rishi Sunak say in Parliament that there are no questions to be answered about Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs, and why do we see our Prime Minister continuing to support such a rogue’s gallery of ministers?”
Sir Laurie’s four-page report, which was received by Mr Sunak on Sunday morning, concluded that “Mr Zahawi’s conduct as a minister fell below the high standards which you as Prime Minister rightly expect of those who serve in your Government”. .
Mr Zahawi’s failure to inform officials of the tax investigation “constitutes a serious failure to meet the standards set out in the ministerial code”, Sir Laurie said.
The Tory chairman “showed insufficient regard for the general principles of the Ministerial Code and the requirements in particular, under the seven Principles of Public Life, to be honest, open and an exemplary leader by his own conduct”.
Sir Laurie said: “In the appointment process for the governments formed in September 2022 and October 2022, Mr Zahawi failed to disclose relevant information – in this case the nature of the investigation and its outcome in a fine – at the time of his appointment, including to Cabinet Office officials who support that process.
“Without knowledge of that information, the Cabinet Office was not empowered to notify the appointing Prime Minister.”
Stephen Massey, the party’s chief executive, has stepped in as interim chairman until Mr Sunak chooses a successor.
Former Tory leader Lord Hague, Mr Sunak’s predecessor as MP for Richmond, dismissed speculation linking him with the vacancy.
“Since I have seen reports of people placing bets that I am the new party chairman, please be aware that I will absolutely not return to politics in any shape or form, including that one,” he said.