For the first time in his 100 days as British prime minister, Rishi Sunak has axed a member of his cabinet. Tory Party chairman and minister without portfolio Nadhim Zahawi’s tax-related indiscretions proved too compromising for him to stay on. Zahawi is, however, to remain a member of parliament, British media reports.
Sunak informed his party’s now-former chairman in a letter of high praise. Following an inquiry by the PM’s independent ethics advisor, he said its findings made clear “that there has been a serious breach of the Ministerial Code. As a result, I have informed you of my decision to remove you from your position in His Majesty’s Government.”
In his responding letter—marked by a conspicuous absence of any admission of misconduct—Zahawi listed his achievements, noting the role he played in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic through his quick rollout of the national vaccination program.
Zahawi went on to voice his concerns “about the conduct of some of the fourth estate in recent weeks.” In particular, he took issue with The Independent’s headline “The Noose Tightens” in its coverage of the scandal. “I am sorry to my family for the toll this has taken on them,” he added, and said he would support Sunak’s agenda as a backbench lawmaker.
Zahawi is now being pressured to give up his parliamentary seat representing Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Sunak appointed Zahawi party leader of the Conservatives and minister on October 25th, 2022. A later investigation by the prime minister’s ethics adviser found that Zahawi had not told former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during his earlier appointment as finance minister, that the UK’s tax administration (HM Revenue and Customs) had started an investigation against him. This investigation was related to the sale of shares in the polling firm YouGov, of which Zahawi was a co-founder, which had made him a multimillionaire.
In the end, Zahawi had to repay a total of £4.8 million—including a 30% fine. When he was subsequently appointed by then-Prime Minister Liz Truss, he however did not disclose that he had paid any settlement. One week ago, news of the settlement surfaced.
As a result, the British prime minister came under scrutiny from Conservative MPs for his trepidation in sacking Zahawi. Labour leader Keir Starmer portrayed Sunak as a weak and hypocritical leader, making reference to Sunak’s wife, who, despite her considerable wealth, pays no tax since her official domicile is outside the UK.
The 55-year-old Zahawi was born into a wealthy British-Iraqi family and later, together with that family, came to the UK as they fled the late Saddam Hussein’s regime.
A part of a broader effort in trying to restore the tarnished image of the Tories, Sunak’s latest move—while necessary to renew some trust—marks yet another setback for the party. A historic electoral defeat (elections will be held no later than January 2025), should the turn-around not happen fast enough, seems all but assured.