Exasperated Tory MPs Fear Nadhim Zahawi Row Will Overshadow Crunch Weeks For Rishi Sunak
Nadhim Zahawi on his way to 10 Downing Street (Alamy)
Nadhim Zahawi remains as Conservative party chair but Tory MPs are worried that unanswered questions over his tax affairs could distract from Rishi Sunak's policy agenda for weeks to come as the party gears up for an already tough set of local elections.
The Prime Minister's announcement on Monday that he had asked his new ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, to investigate the Zahawi's settlement with HMRC took some heat out of the story, as there was intense speculation that he would be forced to quit within days.
Zahawi said in a statement that he would stay on as chair while the investigation takes places, meaning he will continue his work of preparing the Conservative party for local elections in May.
Several Tory MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome expressed concern that Zahawi will "be the story" for the foreseeable future, overshadowing Sunak's policy agenda and undermining the party's build up to the local elections. As Conservative party chair, Zahawi would usually be expected to do a high number of media appearances in the run up to those elections, but MPs fear they will be dominated by questions over his tax affairs.
“The idea that we go into locals with this still hanging over us is implausible," said one former minister, reflecting a widespread view that the story needs to quickly be brought to an end.
Another senior Conservative MP, a former secretary of state, said that while Zahawi is reasonably well liked among Tory backbenchers, there is unlikely to be a concerted push for him to stay in his job if pressure grows on the former chancellor in the coming days.
They added that popularity with fellow Tory MPs has waned after the "odd six months" last year when he backed Liz Truss to be prime minister, endorsed Boris Johnson's rumoured but ultimately unrealised bid to replace her, and then switched to Sunak less than half an hour later.
“Is anyone going to go to the wall for Nadhim?” they said.
Conservative MPs hope that Magnus, who Sunak appointed as Independent Adviser on Ministers' Interests in December, six months after the resignation of Lord Geidt, will conclude his probe as in the next few weeks, allowing the government to swiftly move on from this latest scandal.
“It’s a gift for the Labour Party," said one exasperated senior Tory.
On Monday night, former Cabinet minister Caroline Nokes said Zahawi should resign, telling TalkTV the story had become "too much of a problem".
"I think the challenge for Nadhim is: Look at the front pages," she said.
"He is leading too many of them and when you become the story it is a distraction from anything else that the government is trying to do.
"There are countless examples of good, competent Cabinet colleagues who have got themselves in a mess who have resigned quickly and come back, really in some instances, just a few months later and I think in order to get this cleared up Nadhim should stand aside and let the investigation run its course."
Chris Philp, the policing minister, said yesterday the investigation into Zahawi's settlement with HMRC would "get to the bottom" of the matter and "obviously the right thing to do".
No 10 insists that Sunak was not aware that Zahawi had been made to pay a penalty for unpaid tax to HMRC when he appointed him as Conservative party chair in late October.
Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, this morning led fresh calls for the Prime Minister to sack Zahawi.
"Every day that Nadhim Zahawi clings on does more damage to Rishi Sunak’s credibility," she said.
“The Conservative Party is stuck in an endless cycle of sleaze and chaos, while the country suffers from a cost of living and NHS crisis. What more will it take for Sunak to finally do the right thing and sack Zahawi, or at least suspend him for the duration of this investigation?"
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