Rishi Sunak’s Government is Sinking Into its Own Swamp
The Prime Minister promised a break from the chaos and corruption of Boris Johnson’s administration. After three months, his MPs fear little has changed
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“This Government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”, Rishi Sunak told the nation during his first speech as Prime Minister.
“Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.”
Three months on and not only has he failed to earn that trust, but he has helped sink his party’s reputation even further into the political swamp than his predecessors.
After a week in which his Government has been involved in not just one, but three serious scandals, the latest opinion polls put his party up to 29 points behind Labour, with Sunak’s own personal ratings also falling through the floor.
Despite promising to restore his party’s reputation, Sunak’s Government now looks in even worse shape than when he took over at the end of October.
The reason for this rapid fall from grace is obvious. When he became Prime Minister, Sunak had a brief window of opportunity in which to make a clean break from the scandal-ridden administrations of his two predecessors.
Instead of taking that opportunity, Sunak immediately filled his Cabinet with many of the same faces that had helped to darken his Government’s reputation in the first place.
Whether it’s Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab, who were both mired in bullying scandals just weeks after getting into their jobs, or Suella Braverman who was re-hired just days after being sacked for leaking Government documents, or Nadhim Zahawi who was already accused of tax avoidance before being re-appointed, Sunak’s Government quickly looked a lot more like its predecessors than the fresh new face of accountability we were all promised.
However, it’s not just the faces that remained the same, but the style of governing. When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister he became notorious for dismissing and denying all allegations against his Government, right until the moment it became impossible for him to continue doing so.
Over recent weeks we have seen a very similar pattern from his successor.
When fresh allegations first emerged of Nadhim Zahawi avoiding tax, Sunak immediately dismissed the story, telling MPs that his party chairman had “addressed this matter in full”.
However, not only was this not true in its own terms – Zahawi had in fact made no public comment at that time – it was also a deep hostage to fortune. Within days Zahawi had been forced to issue a statement confirming that he had in fact paid a penalty to HMRC and had been in negotiations with them while in charge of Treasury. It also emerged that when these allegations were first raised by journalists earlier this year, Zahawi had flatly denied them and threatened media organisations with spurious legal action.
Yet despite all of this evidence of Zahawi misleading the taxman, the media and potentially the Prime Minister himself, Sunak still refused to sack him, with his spokesman telling reporters on Wednesday that the Prime Minister still had full “confidence” in his minister.
This wasn’t the first time Sunak has failed to act. For months now the Prime Minister has insisted that he retains full confidence in his deputy Dominic Raab, despite no fewer than 24 civil servants accusing him of bullying. Like Zahawi, Downing Street have still not declared when the investigation into Raab will be concluded, or whether the PM will be bound by any conclusions it reaches. Like Johnson, who chose to ignore the results of the investigation he belatedly launched into Priti Patel, Sunak has missed yet another opportunity to take a clean break from the past.
These mounting scandals are inevitably raising questions about other members of Sunak’s Government. Yet when asked whether any other Cabinet minister, or the Prime Minister himself, had ever been forced to pay a penalty to HMRC, Sunak’s spokesman repeatedly refused to answer, insisting that these were “private” matters.
For several days Downing Street continued with this line, until just like under Johnson, they were eventually forced to buckle, with his spokesman belatedly releasing a statement on Wednesday evening confirming that the PM in fact had not paid a penalty.
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The accident-prone nature of Sunak’s fledgling administration is starting to worry many Conservative MPs. When he first became Prime Minister there was notable relief, even among those who were not his natural supporters, that a more competent, and honourable politician appeared to have entered Downing Street.
Yet as the weeks have passed, that relief has turned to horror, as Sunak has sunk slowly back into the same quagmire that dragged down his predecessors.
“Most of us were feeling pretty sanguine and wanting to give him the chance to get his feet under the table”, one Conservative MP told Byline Times.
“The Zahawi situation is changing that”.
With the polls suggesting the party is still heading to potential oblivion at the next general election, the previously unthinkable prospect of yet another leadership challenge is again starting to rear its head.
So bleak has it become, that even the prospect of a return for Boris Johnson, who even this week was mired in a fresh scandal of his own, is even being touted by some on Sunak’s benches.
“Bringing back Boris would obviously be completely mad”, one Conservative MP and former minister told Byline Times.
“But are some of my colleagues now seriously considering it? Yes they are.”
A return for the former Prime Minister still remains a fairly distant prospect.
Yet with Sunak now mimicking many of Johnson’s worst attributes, while doing so little to restore the reputational damage he did to their party, some Conservative MPs are starting to wonder just why they went to the trouble of removing him in the first place.