The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Britain’s Rishi Sunak pulled into ‘Tory sleaze’ probes

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak does a media interview during a visit to Berrywood Hospital in Northampton, England, on Monday. (Toby Melville/Pool/Reuters)
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LONDON — He was supposed to be the responsible adult, the new squeaky-clean prime minister who would do the washing up at Downing Street after the economic mess of Liz Truss and the pandemic partying of Boris Johnson.

But try as he might, Rishi Sunak and his Conservative Party government keep getting pulled back into the past, to face accusations of what the opposition brands as “Tory sleaze,” a shorthand for the clubby cronyism here among politicians and donors on the right.

After a weekend of bruising reveals, led by scoops by the Guardian, Sunak on Monday announced that an independent ethics adviser would look into the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi, the chairman of the Conservative Party and formerly the chancellor of the exchequer, Britain’s name for finance minister and one of the four “Great Offices of State.”

Hours later on Monday, Britain’s commissioner of public appointments announced that his office would investigate the appointment of Richard Sharp as chairman of the BBC, a position that required Johnson’s approval.

This probe comes after the Sunday Times reported that Sharp was central in helping Johnson find someone to act as a guarantor for a personal loan, up to $1 million, that Johnson sought while serving as prime minister.

Alongside these weighty matters, Sunak himself got dinged last week, fined by police for not wearing his seat belt while making a social media video post in the back seat of a government vehicle.

The seat-belt offense resonated with the public in part because this was Sunak’s second fixed-penalty offense. Earlier he was fined for attending one of the gatherings held at 10 Downing Street in violation of strict lockdown rules being enforced at the time. That party was to celebrate Johnson’s birthday.

Last week it was revealed that Zahawi managed to negotiate his overdue tax payment with His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs — Britain’s Internal Revenue Service — to pay millions of pounds in outstanding tax liabilities, plus a hefty penalty, while he was chancellor.

Clean-government campaigners and leaders of the opposition Labour Party quickly called for Zahawi to resign — or for Sunak to sack him.

“This pathetic attempt to pass the buck is simply not good enough,” said Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, stressing that Zahawi was chancellor of the exchequer — in charge of spending tax revenue — while negotiating a settlement with the tax collectors.

“You don’t need an ethics adviser to tell you that’s unacceptable,” Rayner said.

According to the Guardian, Zahawi owed taxes on capital gains after the sale of shares in YouGov, the polling company he co-founded before he was elected as a lawmaker.

Zahawi paid the back tax he had owed, as well as a 30 percent penalty, with the total settlement amounting to $6 million, the newspaper reported.

The 56-year-old politician, who was born in Iraq and fled with his family to Britain when he was a boy, has described his late payment as a “careless and not deliberate” error.

Likewise, Sharp, the BBC chairman, stressed that he was not directly involved in any loan for Johnson.

“I was not involved in making a loan, or arranging a guarantee, and I did not arrange any financing,” Sharp said in an internal email to the BBC on Monday (which the BBC later published).

According to the Sunday Times, Sharp did help sort out a guarantee on a loan for Johnson in 2020. The guarantor, according to the Times, was Sam Blyth, a Canadian businessman and distant cousin of Johnson. Sharp, a 56-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker and big Tory donor, was appointed to chair the BBC in January 2021.

Sharp confirmed to the BBC that he had introduced Blyth to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, the government’s most senior civil servant and a top adviser to the prime minister, “as Sam wanted to support Boris Johnson.” Blyth, Sharp and Johnson also dined together at the prime minister’s official countryside mansion, Chequers, but Sharp denied that Johnson’s finances were discussed.

John Nicolson, a lawmaker with the Scottish National Party, told the House of Commons the affair was “all a bit banana republic,” according to Sky News.

Nicolson complained that when vetted by Parliament for the top job at BBC, Sharp neglected to tell the panel of “his role in getting the man appointing him a huge loan.”

On Monday, Johnson defended Sharp as “a great and wise man.”

“But he knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances,” Johnson said. “I can tell you that for 100 percent ding-dang sure.”

Speaking to Sky News, Johnson called the affair “a load of complete nonsense — absolute nonsense.”

He said, “This is just another example of the BBC disappearing up its own fundament.”

For his part, the BBC chairman called the matter “a distraction for the organization, which I regret.”