Prime ministers rarely can please everybody, but annoying almost everybody on each side of a contentious issue is still a rare feat. British leader Rishi Sunak has managed it with his handling of the sacking of minister and Tory chairman, Nadhim Zahawi.
A report from the government’s independent ethics adviser criticising Zahawi’s lack of candour over a tax penalty he paid landed in Sunak’s inbox at 7am on Sunday. By 8am he had sacked Zahawi and by 9am it was publicly announced, just in time for the prime morning political shows.
Superficially, it appears to demonstrate crisp decisiveness on the prime minister’s part. The problem for Sunak is that the ethics report added little to what was already known by then: that Zahawi paid a substantial tax penalty and tried to cover it up.
The government is already in rough waters from myriad storms. Why did Sunak allow Zahawi’s political wounds to bleed all over the deck for more than a week following his belated admission he was fined by tax authorities?
Last Monday, six days before the sacking, Sunak’s spokesman said Zahawi had not fully disclosed his tax troubles when the prime minister appointed him to cabinet. Sunak’s critics say that alone should have cost Zahawi his job, regardless of an ethics investigation.
Instead, Sunak waited until Sunday to pull the trigger, after a week of damaging headlines about “Tory sleaze”. Opposition (and many government) MPs believe the delay made him look weak.
Meanwhile, Zahawi’s “allies” are briefing British media that he did not get due process, with just one 30-minute meeting with the investigator, and Sunak was weak to cave in to outside pressure.
Thursday marks Sunak’s first 100 days as prime minister, an office to which he ascended by promising ethical leadership. He has lost two ministers in that time – Gavin Williamson resigned as cabinet office minister over bullying claims less than two weeks after Sunak got in.
The casualty list may soon reach three, when the results of an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, become known. Sunak, blooded by the sacking of Zahawi, may feel compelled to show greater strength.
Williamson was previously sacked twice by other leaders before Sunak appointed him. Raab’s reputation as a bully was legendary for years. Zahawi’s tax troubles were already in the press when he got the job, while Suella Braverman, Sunak’s loose-cannon home secretary, resigned for breaching the ministerial code six days before Sunak reappointed her.
The focus may soon switch from Sunak’s political strength to his political judgment.