Sunak fails the smell test

Nadhim Zahawi on the left, looking over his shoulder behind bags of money. Rich Sunak on the right, looking forwards.

There is no suggestion whatsoever that Nadhim Zahawi, Cabinet minister and Chairman of the Conservative Party, has broken the law. His fiercest detractors are not calling him criminal, and his loudest defenders, a dwindling band, point out that tax avoidance is not tax evasion. So, what’s the fuss?

There’s a notion in politics of the ‘smell test’. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the troublesome and arcane details, if something doesn’t smell right, the public sense it and turn on you. Zahawi’s grudging defence, dragged out of him with all the ease of removing molars, is that he has been a bit careless. ‘Careless’ is forgetting your keys, not forgetting you owe the HMRC £3.9m, and the voters know it. It was only because of the dogged determination of Dan Neidle, the campaigning tax expert, that any of this came to light. Mr Neidle knew it didn’t smell right. Indeed, he rightly surmised that it stank to high heaven.

It will be Mr Zahawi’s high-handed response to legitimate questions that sees him off. The use of his wealth and privilege to attempt to silence Neidle, through the threat of SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation), has backfired. We read the lawyers’ letters in the media, and see a straightforward attempt to shut Dan Neidle up. Many would have crumbled at that moment, and Zahawi would have carried on. Luckily for us all, Dan Neidle is made of sterner stuff.

By the time you read this, Zahawi will probably have resigned or been sacked. On Monday the Prime Minister said integrity and accountability is really important to me and clearly in this case there are questions that need answering’ having said last week that Zahawi had ‘already addressed this matter in full. So not so ‘in full’ after all. There’s another political notion, sometimes wrongly ascribed to Alistair Campbell, that if a scandal lasts for more than ten days, it’s sayonara for the protagonist. We are now in the end-game.

But the more interesting question is what does it say about Rishi Sunak and his government? Sunak, with a massive dollop of hubris, stood on the threshold of No.10 last October and said he would govern with ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’. Like Tony Blair’s ‘whiter than white’, this is a phrase which will be hung around his neck until the next election. By referring Zahawi to his independent ethics adviser, the Prime Minister is trying to look like he has a grip on the fast-moving situation. Too late, mate. Sunak looks weak, and the Tory hyenas are already snuffling around. They know a wounded wildebeest when they sniff one.

The problem is not really Zahawi and his offshore funds. Nor is it Braverman’s security breaches, Williamson’s bullying, Raab’s treatment of his officials, Mone’s millions from PPE, or Boris Johnson’s massive loan from the man he made chair of the BBC. It is all of these things, accumulating to a picture of venal self-interest, breath-taking incompetence, entitlement and arrogance, and a degree of out-of-touchness that would shame Catherine the Great.

Like the Tory ‘back to basics’ series of scandals in the 1990s which rocket-boosted Labour’s landslide, this series of individual scandals is more than the sum of its parts. Each individual act may be explained away. Our attention may be diverted momentarily to something else: our gas bill, a train strike, or a Coronation. But the smell lingers on, getting stronger which each scandal. Once a government fails the smell test, it is living on borrowed time. Rishi Sunak’s government has a familiar reek, immediately recognisable in the nostrils of seasoned political observers: it is the stench of death.


If you enjoyed this Paul on Politics, check out his previous issue: A century which proves Labour only wins on the centre-ground.