Britain’s ruling Conservatives believed the ethics scandals which dogged Boris Johnson’s premiership would finally be consigned to the history books when they ousted him as leader last year.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way.
The investigation announced on Monday into the tax affairs of Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi followed a series of damaging allegations about the historic conduct of senior ministers in Rishi Sunak’s administration which have left Tory MPs fearing further public backlash.
“Yesterday and today will have felt quite a lot like some of the days under Boris,” warned James Johnson, a former Downing Street pollster who conducts regular focus groups around the U.K. via his firm JL Partners. “It creates a bit of a view among the public that things haven’t changed that much since last year.”
Boris Johnson’s disregard for rules was legendary even before he became prime minister, and the constant rumble of scandal around his leadership ultimately proved fatal. His government collapsed last summer beneath a torrent of revelations about illegal lockdown parties and claims he ignored warnings about misconduct by a senior ally.
Seeking to replace Johnson as prime minister, Rishi Sunak vowed to disperse the whiff of sleaze that lingered around Downing Street and “lead the world” in “standards of integrity, decency and leadership.” Sleaze is a catch-all British term for political misconduct, covering everything from inappropriate lobbying to sexual harassment and downright corruption.
But since entering No. 10 Downing Street, Sunak has found the lingering stench of scandals hard to shift.
Within days of his appointment Sunak was hit by a wave of historic bullying allegations against Cabinet minister Gavin Williamson, a key figure in Sunak’s leadership campaign, who resigned rather than cause the new PM further embarrassment.
Then came bullying claims against Sunak’s newly-installed deputy and justice secretary, Dominic Raab, which are currently being investigated by barrister Adam Tolley. Raab denies any wrongdoing.
Sunak himself has not been immune to controversy. Having already been stung last year by the exposure of his wife’s controversial non-domiciled tax status, Sunak has since received two fixed-penalty notices from the police: one for attending a birthday gathering for Johnson at the height of the pandemic, and one for failing to wear a seatbelt in a moving car last week.
This weekend saw the most damaging moment so far, when Tory Chairman Zahawi admitted to settling a reportedly multimillion-pound tax dispute while serving as U.K. chancellor under Johnson last summer. Sunak has now ordered an investigation into his tax affairs. Opposition politicians are demanding Zahawi be sacked.
Johnson himself, meanwhile, has been referred to the parliamentary standards watchdog after the Sunday Times reported that he discussed a guarantee on a personal loan of up to £800,000 with the new BBC chairman weeks before recommending him for the role.
Sunak’s allies maintain he is committed to upholding his promise to raise standards, citing his appointment of a new ethics adviser — a post which had been controversially left vacant under Johnson.
His official spokesman said there were “legitimate questions” to answer about Zahawi’s tax affairs and the decision to open an inquiry demonstrated that Sunak takes the matter seriously.
Others argue the alleged lapses of behavior now filling Sunak’s in-tray are at least partly a hangover from his predecessor’s slapdash reign. One senior government official put it succinctly: “These are legacy issues.”
“He [Sunak] really is making an effort [to clear things up],” a Cabinet minister insisted. Referring to the Zahawi probe, he added: “You don’t just throw a colleague under the bus without due process — not least because you don’t want them sulking on the backbenches.”
But questions linger about Sunak’s ability to act decisively.
One Tory MP suggested that since the row over Sunak’s wife’s taxes, “it just feels like this is clearly not someone who has got perfect judgment” and there is a persistent “naivety” about the PM.
That naivety was on display again last week when Sunak published a social media video of himself in a moving car without wearing a seatbelt, several MPs agreed.
A senior member of former PM Liz Truss’s campaign staff said Sunak’s lofty words about integrity had always struck them as a hostage to fortune, “given that you never know what is going to happen — especially with the Tory Party as it is.” They suggested Sunak ought to have given himself some “breathing space” on the issue.
The U.K. parliament has been hit with a slew of misconduct claims over the past year covering most of the main political parties. A record number of MPs are currently sitting as independents after being suspended from their parties.
Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London (QMUL), said: “Sunak is able to demonstrate that he is different by being basically competent, but to demonstrate integrity — being really different — I am not sure it will be enough just to deal with issues as they come up.”
In order to execute a meaningful overhaul of standards, he suggested, Sunak “would need to throw Johnson under a bus — and he can’t do that for party management reasons.”
While Sunak sought to make his contrast with Johnson his key selling point, the window to make that case persuasively seems to be closing.
The pollster James Johnson predicted that the Zahawi affair would “cut through” with the public because it speaks to basic concepts of fairness.
“If he puts a lid on it very quickly and takes action, he may look stronger,” Johnson suggested, “but the longer this goes on the more that opportunity fades.”
Even before the latest Zahawi and Boris Johnson stories broke, one former minister described the rolling sleaze scandals as the biggest existential threat to the Conservative Party.
“It’s got the feel of a 1997 defeat coming,” they said, in a reference to Tony Blair’s historic Labour victory over Conservative John Major after a series of revelations about corruption and misconduct among Tory MPs.
Indeed, looking back to the 1990s is unlikely to provide much reassurance for Sunak’s party. Like Sunak, Major had pledged to root out sleaze in the party, but voters decided they wanted rid of him anyway.
QMUL’s Cowley observed that many of the allegations back then “were very trivial and some wouldn’t even count as scandals today” whereas MPs’ more recent follies were, if anything, “much worse.”