Nadhim Zahawi referred in his statement yesterday to “the party I love so much”. It was the only emotional phrase in an otherwise dry statement, other perhaps than a reference to his father, and to “his invaluable guidance”. A friend says it was pitched not so much at the general public as at Rishi Sunak. He may be right.
For when a Minister comes under fire, the Prime Minister’s support is essential. If it is heartfelt, the latter may find a way of saying a few words for a camera or the airwaves. The view of the Minister’s colleagues will also be important. If they queue up to defend him, they will either believe his account of events, like him, or have an interest in backing him – not least because they may be next.
You will have your own take, but James Cleverly, the luckless Minister on media duty yesterday, didn’t say that he had confidence in Zahawi as Party Chairman, but that his colleagues’ futures are a matter for the Prime Minister. That wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence. Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith, who was also in the TV studios, urged Zahawi to “get it all out now, whatever you have to do, and clear it up.”
I haven’t yet spoken to anyone in Downing Street with a less cautious view. It’s a big place with many staff, not all of whom will have the same opinion – a point to bear in mind when you read articles quoting “Number Ten”. Duncan Smith said that “I genuinely don’t believe this is a man who is deceitful in any shape or form”. But one senior figure I spoke to yesterday said that he wasn’t convinced by Zahawi’s account of events.
This gives rise to three main issues. The first is founder shares in YouGov being allocated to Zahawi’s father in an offshore trust. YouGov has denied that his father was involved in the company. Zahawi says that HMRC agrees that his father was entitled to founder shares, though HMRC disagreed “about the exact allocation”.
The second is whether Zahawi was settling his accounts with HMRC while serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and had to pay a penalty. His statement says that he resolved his tax affairs “prior to my appointments as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster” and that HMRC he originally made a “careless and not deliberate” error, which has now been rectified.
The third is not for the Party Chairman but for three Prime Ministers – and, by extension, the Cabinet Office, which gives advice on appointments. If the latter knew that the man about to be appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer was open to controversy in relation to his own tax bill, what did it say first to Boris Johnson, who appointed him to the job, to Rishi Sunak, who made him Party Chairman – and Liz Truss, who appointed Zahawi for a brief period to…the Cabinet Office.
It should be added that if a former Chancellor’s tax affairs can leak from HMRC, no taxpayer can feel sure that his affairs will have the confidentiality to which he’s entitled. Some will take the view that someone’s tax bill is their own private business and no-one else’s, and that’s an end of the matter. This is hard to maintain when the person concerned is Chancellor of the Exchequer, and so responsible for the integrity of the tax system as a whole.
Either way, my media colleagues are playing their usual game of Get The Minister. In most cases, this is less an instance of anti-Conservative bias than anti-politician reflex: Britain’s media pack that hunts as a “feral beast”, as Tony Blair once put it. It’s concentrated in one big city, feeds off its own momentum, and is more than capable of picking off Ministers one by one. First under this Government came Gavin Williamson. The next target was Suella Braverman. Then Dominic Raab.
All of which is a reminder that the legitimacy of the enquiry depends on the case in question. Williamson was accused of bullying, which he denies, and faces an inquiry by the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (though that in itself is scarcely unusual).
The push against Braverman was less personal than political: there is undoubtedly a lobby that wants the Government’s Rwanda scheme to fail – and either believes in open borders (though it’s sometimes shy of saying so) or thinks that the small boats simply can’t be stopped. The complaints about Raab appear to raise the question of whether a man should be barred from serving as a Minister because some civil servants don’t like his manner.
Two of those three have survived, at least so far, and now it is Zahawi’s turn. As Cleverly suggested yesterday, the Party Chairman’s story is a very British one. He arrived here at the age of eleven unable to speak a word of English, went on to help build a company worth millions of pounds, and has proved himself an energetic minister – not least with the vaccine taskforce.
In my experience, other MPs speak very well of him. He now faces an opening question, and then more, about his tax affairs in every interview he faces, just as the run-up to May’s local elections is getting going. It’s a bad position for a Party Chairman to be in. The Prime Minister has a sack-or-back decision to make, as the media search for more allegations to finish Zahawi off.
If it’s the first, the lobby will move on to the next target, if not distracted by the claims about Boris Johnson’s finances and the BBC Chairman’s appointment. If it’s the second, Zahawi will carry on until the controversy fades away or finishes him. Either way, Downing Street would do better to make up its mind now rather than do so just before Wednesday’s PMQs.
And finally, a message to Keir Starmer and his team: don’t gloat, because what goes around comes around. These are the kind of joys that await you all after the next election – assuming that you win it, that is.