The inability to remove his own party chair after a multimillion-pound tax mistake underlines Rishi Sunak’s weakness
Written in an earlier time about misgivings over the accumulation of power and money, the words of F Scott Fitzgerald are apposite today. “They were careless people,” laments the narrator of his classic novel The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things … and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.” The Tory party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, paid, it appears, about £5m in penalties and outstanding taxes to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Mr Zahawi says his mistakes were “careless”. But how could the Conservatives ever have allowed somebody, as they did with Mr Zahawi, to become chancellor when he was in dispute with the tax authority, for which the chancellor is responsible? It is a conflict of interest that no one could miss – unless, perhaps, they too were being careless.
We all can be remiss. But not to the extent that we forget, apparently, to report an estimated £27m to HMRC. Rishi Sunak appointed Mr Zahawi to be Tory party chair and gave him a seat at his cabinet table. The prime minister claims not to have been apprised of the facts before defending Mr Zahawi at the dispatch box last week, or when he gave him his current job. A stronger prime minister would have done the right thing and sacked Mr Zahawi. Mr Sunak has referred the matter to his ethics adviser. But the occupant of No 10 does not need a report to tell him who should be in his cabinet. Mr Sunak is a weak prime minister: he has to go in to bat for colleagues for fear of them refusing to do the same for him. He risks the government losing trust in him.