As the knives come out for Zahawi, is a purge of Boris’s supporters under way?

Johnson Zahawi - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Johnson Zahawi - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

If Boris Johnson is going to make a comeback in the summer to save the Tory party he might find that a lot of his supporters have disappeared.

The knives are certainly out for them, with the futures of Nadhim Zahawi, the party chairman, and Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman, in the balance.

Mr Zahawi was one of the most senior backers of Johnson’s return to the top of the party last October when he was considering standing again for the leadership.

Sharp was a friend of Mr Johnson who helped to arrange an £800,000 loan for the cash-strapped ex-PM when he was in office. Both are now under investigation.

On Wednesday, it was the turn of David Gauke, a former Tory MP, to turn up the heat in the row over Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs.

“I think it is going to be very uncomfortable for Rishi Sunak at 12 o’clock today if Nadhim Zahawi is still in place,” he told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday morning.

“There are just too many impossible questions for him and the longer this drags on, the more difficult it is for the Prime Minister.”

A tug-of-war battle with HMRC

Shortly after Mr Gauke’s noon deadline, Mr Sunak admitted at Prime Minister’s Questions that it would have been “politically expedient” to have dealt with the Zahawi issue by midday, but he was determined to follow “proper due process”.

Mr Gauke is a former Tory MP who was justice secretary for a brief spell before he quit the party over Brexit to fight the last election as an independent.

He was no fan of Mr Johnson, repeatedly attacking him online, notably last October urging “all MPs who put the national interest first to come together and force a general election” if Johnson were elected as leader.

The other voice so far calling for Mr Zahawi to be sacked is Caroline Nokes, the arch-Johnson critic who is no fan of the ex-PM.

There are big questions about Mr Zahawi’s estimated £5 million tax settlement with HM Revenue & Customs.

He should have recognised that while a tug-of-war battle with HMRC is quite common for millionaires such as Mr Zahawi, front-line politicians like him are held to a higher standard.

He was wrong to fight questions about his tax affairs using lawyers. And he should have set out as much detail as soon as details of the seven-figure settlement first emerged in The Sun on Sunday on January 14.

Mr Zahawi is still in office only because of the tremendous amount of political capital built up for him over his successful handling of the vaccine rollout during the Covid-19 pandemic. A less respected minister would have gone by now.

Picked off one by one

Any decision about his future has now been handed to Sir Laurie Magnus, Mr Zahawi’s adviser on ministerial interests. Mr Sunak will have to sack his chairman if Sir Laurie finds anything wrong.

Is a purge of the Johnsonites underway? Many of his former lieutenants – Sir Jake Berry, Nigel Adams, Simon Clarke and others – have long ago stepped back from the Tory front line.

Conservative politics used to be defined as Left vs Right. Then it became Remain vs Leave after the 2016 EU referendum. Now a new Tory dividing line is emerging: Johnsonites vs Everyone Else.

With Mr Johnson politically incapacitated by the glacially slow MPs’ inquiry into whether he lied to Parliament over partygate, his supporters are being picked off one by one.

If Johnson makes his comeback later this year, his old pals might not be around to welcome him.

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