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Near the beginning of last week, I wrote on this site that the Prime Minister should make up his mind about Nadhim Zahawi’s circumstances one way or the other. The former then referred the latter’s case to the new Independent Adviser on the Ministerial Code, Laurie Magnis.
Near the start of the week’s end, I wrote that Magnus’ report needed to be published urgently: “the man tasked with leading the Conservatives’ local election campaign can only say when asked about his tax affairs not “I’ve been cleared’ but “I’m under investigation…A decision is required urgently”.
And now Zahawi is gone – sacked by Rishi Sunak. The Prime Minister’s letter to his former Party Chairman says that the Independent Adviser has found “a serious breach of the Ministerial code”.
Sunak’s position will have been familiar to former Prime Ministers with a Cabinet member in the media’s sights. Heads you fire them – and lose, as the gain is pocketed by your opponents and the lobby moves on to its next target. Furthermore, the sacked Minister will now be a political foe, and if your situation is weak the decision may weaken it further.
And tails you keep them – and lose too, because the Cabinet member is eventually forced out anyway, you are blamed for letting days of bad publicity roll on, and the media goes on to its next target in any event. In this case, he is already there: Dominic Raab.
The Prime Minister thus faces the possibility of a report into the Justice Secretary that is unlikely to clear him completely – thereby encouraging the lobby to pile on the pressure all over again.
It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to write that I was right first time round, and that Sunak should have spared his Party a week’s pain by firing Zahawi last Monday. He now needs Magnus’ report on Raab in double quick time too, because he faces the prospect of a similar pattern when it’s published.
Bullying can sometimes simply mean disagreeing with a Minister who knows his mind and wants things done – the accusations made about Michael Gove by Matthew Rycroft, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, look like a case in point. We will soon find out whether that’s true in the case of the Justice Secretary.
Who will replace Zahawi? Downing Street will want an appointment that creates a positive headline. It may take the view that the appointment of a woman will suit. The women in Cabinet are Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt, Therese Coffey, Gillian Keegan, Kemi Badenoch, and Michelle Donelan.
The first is too senior, the second too ambitious, the third associated with Liz Truss and the fourth difficult though not impossible to move, given her pivotal role at Education. Such an appointment would undoubtedly create a splash.
Or the Prime Minister could go for a safe pair of hands, such as Mark Harper. Or seek minimum disruption to Cabinet, and promote from the junior ranks of government or else from the backbenches.