Rishi Sunak on Monday insisted he would restore integrity to politics following his sacking of Nadhim Zahawi as Conservative chair, as new opinion polling suggested the UK prime minister’s popularity is declining.
With opposition parties claiming Sunak moved too slowly to dismiss Zahawi, Sunak defended his actions, saying he had “acted pretty decisively” once an inquiry had found the former cabinet member had breached the ministerial code.
Meanwhile, William Shawcross, the public appointments commissioner, on Monday recused himself from an investigation into the nomination of Richard Sharp as BBC chair following conflict of interest allegations.
Zahawi was sacked by Sunak on Sunday after a probe by ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus found he had committed “serious breaches” of the ministerial code by failing to be transparent about his tax affairs.
Sunak asked Magnus to investigate after the Guardian reported that Zahawi had reached a £5mn settlement with HM Revenue & Customs over unpaid taxes, which included a penalty.
The prime minister on Monday said he had acted “straight away” on Magnus’s findings. “That should give you some confidence that these things matter to me, and that I will take whatever steps are necessary to restore the integrity back into politics, and you can have confidence that the process works,” he added.
Labour demanded Sunak reveal when he first knew about the HMRC investigation into Zahawi.
Anneliese Dodds, Labour chair, said: “What did he know about the investigation into Mr Zahawi, the amount of money in . . . unpaid tax and the penalty that he had to pay to HMRC?”
Magnus’s investigation found Zahawi was first in contact with HMRC over the tax dispute in 2021, and reached a settlement in August last year. The dispute focused on the tax treatment of a shareholding in YouGov, the polling company Zahawi co-founded.
Some Conservative MPs privately fear the Zahawi affair will further hurt the party as it trails Labour in the polls.
“This has a corrosive effect,” said one former cabinet minister. Another ex-minister added: “It is bad for the government, it can’t just be swept away.”
Some Tories called for reform of the vetting process for cabinet ministers, as part of efforts to restore public confidence in the government.
Steve Brine, chair of the House of Commons health select committee, said the way ministers are appointed “needs looking at”.
New polling by Ipsos Mori suggested Sunak’s popularity has declined in recent weeks.
In November, 41 per cent of those surveyed said Sunak would make the most capable prime minister, compared to 35 per cent who said the same of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Polling published on Monday found 39 per cent thought Starmer would make the best prime minister, compared to 33 per cent who said the same of Sunak.
Fifty-five per cent said they thought the Conservatives had done a “poor job” and there should be a change of government at the next election.
Meanwhile, Shawcross said he had recused himself from the probe he had previously announced into the process behind the appointment of Sharp as BBC chair because he had met him on “previous occasions”.
Shawcross said he would be delegating his powers as commissioner to an “independent person” for the Sharp investigation.
Shawcross announced the probe after the Sunday Times reported Sharp helped to arrange an £800,000 loan for then prime minister Boris Johnson in late 2020. The government nominated Sharp as BBC chair soon afterwards.
Sharp has said he put Sam Blyth, a distant cousin of Johnson who acted as guarantor on the loan, in touch with Simon Case, the cabinet secretary.
Sharp has denied any wrongdoing, and rejected conflict of interest allegations.