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Analysis | Sunak’s Dithering does not bode well for the future


Losing one cabinet minister in your first 100 days in office might be considered an accident, but losing two seems like carelessness, to misquote Oscar Wilde. If a Deputy Prime Minister followed through the exit door any time soon – and possibly the BBC’s Tory-nominated chairman too – the great Victorian wit might have used another of its aphorisms; “There is no sin except stupidity.”

After Rishi Sunak was forced yesterday to sack the ruling Conservative party chairman Nadhim Zahawi for failing to clarify his tax affairs, voters will wonder if the British prime minister is unlucky, weak or just wet behind the ears. The jury is still out on all three charges.

In a fourth charge, however, there is no question of Sunak’s guilt. The incumbent prime minister has put prudent short-term party management above good governance – and his own long-term interests. Investigations into allegations of bullying against Sunak’s deputy Dominic Raab are pending, involving officials from three ministries.

On February 2, Sunak passes his symbolic milestone of 100 days with several millstones around his neck. While he has impressed the markets with his determined response to the economic turmoil inherited from his predecessor Liz Truss, the former banker has yet to make his mark on his party and the country. Silent competence is not enough, however refreshing it may be after 12 months of political chatter at the top. More than 60 years ago, a weak Tory prime minister – Anthony Eden in 1956 – was famously urged to show “the taste of firm government”. Now it’s Sunak’s turn.

In his first speech outside No. 10, Sunak promised a break with the chaotic past. “This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level,” he said, adding: “Trust is earned and I will earn yours.” The tune of Boris Johnson’s ruling government was “Anything Goes”, so a cleanup was clearly overdue.

Still, Sunak’s promise was a clear hostage to fortune. After 12 uninterrupted years in power, the Tories have grown arrogant in office and have been embroiled in multiple allegations of sleaze and influence. When Sunak chose to put several of Johnson’s and Truss’s remains with questionable files in his cabinet, he risked having his words hurled in his face. Not foreseeing this was dangerously naive.

Indeed, months before Sunak brought back Zahawi as party chairman, the Iraqi-born Tory power broker threatened lawsuits against journalists and independent investigators who circled his tax affairs and financial dealings. But he had a good track record as a minister working on vaccine rollouts and was popular with his peers and backward Tory MPs. Johnson had made Zahawi Chancellor of the Treasury despite dark clouds over his reputation; Truss, too, handed him a cabinet post during her brief stint at No. 10. If Sunak fired him without due process, it would have sparked an uprising that a brand new prime minister cannot afford.

Yet a confident leader would have fired him two weeks ago. A sly one could have suspended him until the investigation was completed. By hesitating, Sunak handed a gift to his enemies. Opinion polls suggest the prime minister is more popular than his party, so this misstep quickly gave Labor permission to personally attack Sunak for being too “weak” to confront his MPs. Labor took a leaf out of Donald Trump’s playbook, claiming that they are only willing to “drain the swamp”.

When Sunak finally tasked his ethics adviser Laurie Magnus with investigating Zahawi’s conduct, the conclusion was that the party chairman had breached the ministerial code on seven occasions, most notably through the IRS’ investigation into his finances and his subsequent £5 million ($6 .2 $) cannot be specified. million) settlement, including fines. To add insult to injury, as chancellor, Zahawi was nominally in charge of HMRC, the British tax collection agency.

Tory ringleaders are now repeating Labour’s attacks. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s former communications director, Sir Craig Oliver, notes: “Rishi Sunak didn’t know anything this morning that he didn’t know a week ago – he will regret not being able to stand up to some of the backbenchers.”

Zahawi’s departure followed a familiar pattern, making things even worse for Sunak. Gavin Williamson’s tenure as cabinet minister without portfolio came to an end after allegations of bullying emerged. Sunak’s judgment continues to be questioned after he reappointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary just six days after she resigned for violating ministerial code by sending sensitive information from her personal email address.

Former Tory chancellor George Osborne, one of the smartest political strategists out there, said: “I think [Sunak] has learned lessons from the Zahawi affair – that you have to act faster than him – and he’s going to try and define himself as the sleaze-buster now, but it’s extremely difficult.

Indeed it is, when violations of decency come thick and fast. A leader still finding his footing in his job is unbalanced by revelations of poor judgment and behavior from people he entrusted with high office. Their past mistakes are not his fault, but an increasing number of ministers he assembled, not least to protect himself, have been held accountable. The damaging accusation may not be that the Prime Minister is stupid, but that he is naive – and few leaders survive that.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• What does Sunak stand for? His party must know: Martin Ivens

Zahawi’s careless tax mistake is Sunak’s problem: Therese Raphael

• American and British Conservatives are frozen in failure: Clive Crook

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Before that, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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