LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fired the chairman of his Conservative Party on Sunday following an ethics investigation into the chairman’s tax affairs, the latest headache for Sunak’s party, which is trailing badly in polls.
The scandal is the latest in a string for Sunak’s Conservative Party, and despite the promise that a steadier hand is now in charge, allegations of “Tory sleaze” and mismanagement continue to dog the government.
The dismissal of Zahawi, a popular Conservative figure, comes after weeks of revelations about his tax affairs. He has come under scrutiny for settling an overdue multimillion-dollar tax bill, along with a penalty, while he was Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister — in other words, he was paying a penalty to the tax authorities at the same time he was their boss.
Zahawi was in charge of the country’s Treasury from July to September, in the final months of Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister.
When Sunak became prime minister last year, he pitched himself as the leader who would move the party on from the scandalous eras of his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. But even though he is only approaching his first 100 days in office, Sunak has already lost two Cabinet members, and a third is under investigation for multiple accusations of bullying. Sunak was also fined by police for not wearing a seat belt while making a video for social media.
In his letter to Zahawi on Sunday, Sunak said he intervened because he had promised that his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” when he became leader.
Sunak’s decision to sack his chairman came after he ordered an independent ethics adviser, Laurie Magnus, to investigate Zahawi’s tax affairs. The tax bill in question was over the sale of shares in YouGov, the polling agency that Zahawi founded.
In the adviser’s verdict on the situation, Zahawi had not declared that his tax affairs were being investigated when Johnson had made him finance minister. The four-page report published on Sunday also said that Zahawi had failed to disclose details when Sunak made him chair of the Conservative Party. These omissions constituted a failure to meet the standards that ministers are supposed to abide by, the report said.
Zahawi said the tax authority had concluded that there had been a “careless and not deliberate” error but also insisted that he was confident he had “acted properly throughout.”
Sunak initially stood by Zahawi. Now opposition politicians have questioned what the prime minister knew before appointing Zahawi to a senior job in the party.
“It’s vital that we now get answers to what Rishi Sunak knew and when did he know it,” said the Labour Party’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson. “We need to see all the papers, not just have the prime minister’s role in this brushed under the carpet.”
Daisy Cooper, the deputy of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Rishi Sunak has finally acted after spending days defending the indefensible. It should never have taken him this long to act. Sunak’s first 100 days in office have been tarnished by endless Conservative sleaze and scandals.”
William Booth contributed to this report.