British Prime Minister Accused of ‘Abdication of Leadership’

The numerous scandals touching the Conservative Party are unlikely to leave Rishi Sunak unscathed.

Scott Heppell/pool via AP
Prime Minister Sunak visits Northern School of Art, at Hartlepool, England, January 19, 2023. Scott Heppell/pool via AP

The Beatles sang of “4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire,” and it appears that Rishi Sunak, having fallen into one of them, has yet to clamber out. Last week, police in the English county of Lancashire fined the British prime minister for failing to wear a seatbelt in the backseat of the car in which he was riding. Mr. Sunak, who upon his arrival at  Downing Street last October said he would lead with “professionalism, integrity, and accountability,” apologized for the “small lapse of judgment.” 

Yet it wasn’t his first run-in with the law. Last spring Mr. Sunak was fined for having briefly attended a party for Prime Minister Johnson at Downing Street, while Britain was in Covid lockdown. Mr. Johnson’s flouting of the Covid rules as they pertained to social gatherings and social distancing during the lockdown period — dubbed Partygate — were a major part of his unceremonious departure from the top position in British politics. 

New controversies that together detractors call an ongoing vanishing act spell fresh trouble not only for the governing Conservatives but for the premier’s own long-term job security.

Chief among these hot spots is an active investigation into the tax affairs of the Conservative Party chairman and former finance minister, Nadhim Zahawi. This was announced on Monday and has dominated British television headlines. It follows a series of allegations about the behavior of some ministers in the Sunak government that has left many Tory MPs fearing a public backlash they may not be able to control.

Mr. Zahawi, currently a minister without portfolio of the Sunak administration, had issues with the British tax authority, HM Revenue & Customs, during his time as chancellor of the exchequer, essentially minister of finance, under Mr. Johnson, namely between July 5 and September 6, 2022. On Sunday, Mr. Zahawi finally admitted that he had issues with the tax authorities.

According to the BBC, he was forced to pay up to $6.2 million — of which 30 percent is reportedly in fines — for misdeclaring his income after having sold his shares in the polling company YouGov, which he co-founded. It appears that he negotiated the fine last summer when he was still finance minister. Mr. Zahawi has not denied there was a conflict of interest. 

Facing pressure from opposition leaders as well as several conservative MPs to “come clean” about what he knew or didn’t know about the case, Mr. Sunak on Tuesday ordered an investigation by the independent ethics adviser into Mr. Zahawi’s tax issue, stating that “there are questions that need to be asked and answered.”

Mr. Zahawi is the fourth member of the Sunak cabinet to be embroiled in some form of scandal. Last November, just two weeks after being appointed, Sir Gavin Williamson resigned as minister without portfolio in the Sunak government following allegations of bullying by colleagues in previous posts.

The deputy British prime minister and justice minister, Dominic Raab, is also under internal investigation for similar charges — intimidation of subordinates — but for the time being at least he remains attached to his twin posts. The home secretary, or interior minister, Suella Braverman, has separately been accused of carelessly handling confidential information. 

At the same time, Britain is reeling from weeks of labor unrest in the public and transport sectors, with the ailing national healthcare system, the NHS, front and center as nurses demand better pay. Ahead of a strike by NHS staff planned for next month, Mr. Sunak has been accused of “an abdication of leadership.”

Last month he was roundly condemned for employing misleading arithmetic concerning public sector pay demands. Regardless of Mr. Sunak’s figures added up, he has been largely absent from the crisis that has pitted public sector workers against Westminster. At least one major union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents Border Force and other public sector workers, has held to the line that the Sunak government is out of touch with the country’s cost-of-living crisis.

Looking and especially sounding more a like a world leader Mr. Sunak in recent days is Mr. Johnson, who after a stopover at Davos brought with him to Kyiv some of the charismatic, rousing rhetoric for which is renowned. Mr. Sunak has been to Ukraine, too, but his surprise visit to Kyiv last November seemed almost pro forma by comparison. 

Yet Messrs. Sunak and Johnson are rival players on the same team, and not all of Mr. Johnson’s recent moves have been smooth. The British newspapers have been breathlessly probing the relationship between the current chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, and Mr Johnson. There are multiple reports that Mr. Sharp helped Mr. Johnson secure a loan worth nearly $1 million just weeks before the latter recommended him for the BBC’s top job, though both men have dismissed allegations of conflict of interest as “absurd.”

In any event, this is all strawberry jam and scones for the opposition, with the Tories trailing Labor by an average of 20 percentage points in most active polling. A lawmaker with the Scottish National Party, John Nicolson, evoked another fruit: “This is all a bit bananas,” the MP stated. 

The New York Sun

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