The firing of Zahawi might be Sunak’s “John Major moment.”
Being a Conservative MP at this point is extremely risky, not just because of the party’s 20-point deficit in the polls and the impending general election.
We will not be seeing Tory chairman Nadhim Zahawi’s glistening pate and tight suit on the front pages for much longer because of his dismissal following an investigation that revealed he had violated the ministerial code.
Rishi Sunak can and undoubtedly will assert that he handled the situation professionally and morally. Instead of using a kangaroo court as some prior premiers did, the PM will insist that due process was followed.
However, it will not be the end for the media and our more sensationalistic and tabloid-style political broadcasters. They will already be looking for the successive senior Conservative to question his (and usually his) financial or personal issues or any propensity for “bullying” staff members through unimaginable behaviour such as brusqueness or a tendency to shout.
Given that Sunak pledged upon taking office to make raising standards in public life a goal of his administration, the argument will be the public interest. The public’s interest, or at least enough, is a more crucial consideration that makes ministerial headhunting desirable.
Voters are sufficiently scratchy to enjoy several sacrifices, given the awful political mix of declining living standards and failed public services that are currently in place.
It is doubtful that the media will run out of things to report. There is a propensity for a governing party’s MPs to become more focused on pursuing riches than glory if the party is worn out from being in power and has a fatalistic mindset. The most clever ones will do it quietly. However, other people will fill their positions, as Matt Hancock did with his famous side business, even though it ended any possibility he had of returning to a place of authority.
The evil eye of Sauron will therefore be looking for fresh victims after claiming the head of Zahawi and Gavin Williamson before him. Keir Starmer and Labour will be aware that reviving the notion of “Tory sleaze” is advantageous to them; it is a worthwhile attack, even though it will provide people hunting for sleazy politicians a new precedent to turn against them relatively fast should they win power. It was telling that during PMQs last week, Starmer attempted to connect Zahawi’s controversy to a previous argument regarding Sunak’s financial situation, including his wife’s former non-dom status.
Like the second half of John Major’s term, the remainder of Rishi Sunak’s time in Downing Street will be riddled with misconduct allegations and plain avarice among his MPs. In addition, almost as frequently as Major’s disastrous 1993 “back to basics” conference speech, Sunak’s commitment to lead a government with “purity, professionalism, and responsibility at every level” will be referenced.