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Zahawi and Johnson rows severely test Sunak's integrity drive

The prime minister is running out of time to show that he meant what he said about cleaning up government.

Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi has acknowledged that he had “carelessly” failed to pay tax that was due and negotiated a settlement while he was in charge at the Treasury.

Rishi Sunak is still getting caught up in scandals generated by his predecessor Boris Johnson. The prime minister is running out of time to show that he meant what he said about cleaning up government, says Alex Thomas

Two more Boris Johnson-era scandals have bubbled over to cause problems for Rishi Sunak. Current Conservative Party chair, and former chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi has acknowledged that he had “carelessly” failed to pay tax that was due and negotiated a settlement while – remarkably – he was in charge at the Treasury; and the chair of the BBC Richard Sharp has been accused of helping Johnson secure £800,000 credit shortly before the prime minister recommended him for the BBC job. 

Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street, and his attitude to rules, standards and ethics, has left a long and damaging legacy. But it is the current prime minister who needs to clean up. When Sunak entered No.10 he promised to lead a government of integrity. Unless he grips, and deals with, the latest fall-out from previous regimes, that promise will be impossible to take at face value. 

It is right that Nadhim Zahawi has been referred to the prime minister’s ethics adviser 

In both scandals, transparency and honesty are the way to proceed. In Zahawi’s case, Sunak was right to refer him to ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus. Hopefully, behind the scenes, Magnus was demanding a referral, given his unfortunate lack of powers to start his own investigations. 

Johnson appointed Zahawi as chancellor when his government was in meltdown, but he should still have taken the time to check for conflicts of interest. Zahawi should have shown better judgement too, knowing that he was in the process of negotiating a tax settlement. The same applies to Sunak’s decisions on appointments – Magnus needs to get to the bottom of what both prime ministers knew, and when, and how they were advised by the civil service. He should also look at the accuracy of Zahawi (and his lawyers’) responses to questions about his personal finances before the HMRC settlement was revealed. 

The ministerial code requires ministers to “ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise”. On the face of it Zahawi’s financial arrangements constitute a clear breach – Magnus should establish if that is the case in days or weeks rather than months. 

Johnson’s credit facility and Sharp’s role need investigation by the commissioner for public appointments 

Another investigation is needed into Johnson’s £800,000 credit facility, and (particularly given recent revelations) into the role of the BBC chair. There are two pressing questions. The first is about the integrity of Sharp’s appointment to the BBC. The commissioner for public appointments, William Shawcross, has the power to look into procedures around individual public appointments and he should do so. Shawcross should present a precise chronology about what discussions happened and when, between civil servants, Boris Johnson, Johnson’s credit-guarantor cousin and Sharp himself, and look at the integrity of the process. The BBC Board should be demanding the same information – indeed Sharp himself has asked for an investigation. 

The second question is about the role of Johnson’s ethics adviser in deciding whether to publicly declare the facility. In the circumstances, parliament and the public should know the advice Johnson received, when he disclosed his arrangements, why Lord Geidt, the ethics adviser at the time, decided that it was not relevant to include in his annual report and why the failure by Geidt to include details in his reporting was not addressed. 

The role of the civil service needs examining 

Rachel Johnson, the ex-prime minister’s sister, made a transparent attempt over the weekend to direct many of these propriety questions at the civil service. Her views might be considered somewhat compromised under these circumstances. That said, there are reasonable questions for the civil service to answer – but without knowing what advice was given, and when, they remain unanswerable.  

A further advantage of transparent investigation is that it will open up the role of officials in these convoluted sagas – and we will know whether problems are because of poor or absent advice, weak civil service leadership, bad behaviour by ministers or some combination of all the above. 

The Zahawi, Johnson and other affairs, including allegations of bullying against the justice secretary Dominic Raab, should all remind our current prime minister that ethical problems have a way of becoming public, and multiply over time. Sunak needs to act on these current scandals with speed and authority – and to root out anything else likely to emerge – to clean his government’s stables before his reputation sinks to the level of his predecessors. 

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