Rishi Sunak’s popularity slumps as he tries to draw line under Zahawi tax scandal

Rishi Sunak popularity with the public has slumped, a new polling has found as he tries to draw a line under the Nadhim Zahawi tax scandal and accusations his government is “drowning in sleaze”.

The prime minister insisted on Monday that he had acted “pretty decisively” by sacking the Tory chairman for breaching the ministerial code over his tax affairs, as he vowed to restore “integrity” to politics.

But a new Ipsos survey found that only one in three voters (32 per cent) believe he has what it takes to be a good prime minister – down ten points since November.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pulled ahead of Mr Sunak on credibility, with 36 per cent saying he has the qualities to be PM.

The poll, carried out by the Evening Standard, also gave Labour a 25-point lead over the Tories, with Sir Keir’s party leading Mr Sunak’s 51 points to 26.

Mr Sunak has been warned by senior Tories that his government could be “pulled down” by sleaze scandals in the same way as ruined Sir John Major’s premiership in the mid-1990s.

Speaking at a NHS hospital in County Durham, the PM said he had acted “straight away” after his ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus found that Mr Zahawi had breached ministerial code rules seven times by failing to be open and honest about his tax affairs.

“That should give you some confidence that these things matter to me. I will take whatever steps are necessary to restore integrity back into politics,” Mr Sunak added, telling the audience of NHS staff and journalists: “Integrity is really important to me”.

Mr Sunak has been dogged by sleaze claims in recent days, with his deputy prime minister Dominic Raab still under investigation over bullying allegations.

Labour’s party chair Anneliese Dodds, saying the Tories were “drowning in sleaze”, accused Mr Sunak of propping up a “rogue’s gallery” of ministers – pointing out that home secretary Suella Braverman was found to have breached the ministerial code by violating security rules.

No 10 said the difference between the PM’s approach to Zahawi and Ms Braverman’s security breach during her first stint as home secretary was that she “took accountability” for her actions.

Senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown – treasurer of the party’s powerful 1922 committee – joined the Liberal Democrats in calling for Mr Zahawi to consider standing down ahead of the next election. Sir Geoffrey said it would be the “best outcome”.

The Lib Dems also urged for Mr Sunak to withdraw the whip from Mr Zahawi, and called for inquiry into legal threats made by the ex-chancellor against The Independent – after we first revealed the existence of the HMRC probe – and others.

But other Conservative MPs rejected calls for his suspension or for him to stand down in his Stratford-Upon-Avon. “He has had punishment enough – he hasn’t broken the law,” one senior Tory angry at Mr Zahawi for “damaging” the party told The Independent.

Tory MP John Penrose, the government’s former anti-corruption tsar, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think having just paid an enormous fine and being sacked from the cabinet, we should find other things to heap on him at the moment.”

Rishi Sunak speaks with audience in County Durham during a Q&A session on Monday (WPA Rota)
Rishi Sunak speaks with audience in County Durham during a Q&A session on Monday (WPA Rota)

It came as No 10 rejected claims from allies of Mr Zahawi – sacked around an hour after Sir Laurie’s landed on Mr Sunak’s desk early on Sunday morning – that he had been unfairly treated by the PM and the ethics adviser.

Mr Zahawi is said to be “furious” about the firing, and his allies told The Spectator that he had told Tom Scholar, then permanent secretary at the Treasury, about both the HMRC investigation and the penalty paid in September 2022.

They also claim his ministerial register of interests was up to date in September, despite Sir Laurie’s report stating that he had failed to update it until earlier this month.

But No 10 rejected the idea any government officials knew of a HMRC penalty in September. “The penalty fact was not set out until a later date. As the [ethics adviser] made clear, [Mr Zahawi] did not declare the details of the fine … until January.”

Mr Penrose said HMRC should have special permission break the customary confidentiality of individuals’ tax returns in the case of vetting Treasury ministers. “We have got to have a system that works better,” he told Radio 5 Live.

Senior Tory MP Steve Brine, chair of the health select committee, said holding “confirmation” hearings after the appointment of cabinet ministers could help increase scrutiny. “I don’t think that is unreasonable,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.

Rishi Sunak speaking to staff during his tour of University Hospital in County Durham ((Phil Noble/PA))
Rishi Sunak speaking to staff during his tour of University Hospital in County Durham ((Phil Noble/PA))

The latest Ipsos poll found that 55 per cent per cent of voters are now dissatisfied with Mr Sunak, up from 49 per cent in December, with a net satisfaction rating falling from -21 to -29.

The startling results also show that just two in ten voters believe the Sunak government is competent. Two-thirds of voters (66 per cent) believe it is time for a change at the next election, the poll suggests. And among 2019 Tory voters, 40 per cent believe it is time for change.

Ex-Tory chancellor George Osborne told The Andrew Neil Show on Channel 4 that Mr Sunak may need to explain his own resignation last year over Mr Johnson’s approach to standards if he wants to define himself as as “sleaze-buster”.

Meanwhile, ex-Tory leader Lord Hague dismissed speculation linking him to the vacant party chairman post. “Please be aware that I will absolutely not be returning to politics in any shape or form, including that one,” he tweeted on Monday.

Commons leader Penny Mordaunt emerged as the bookmakers’ favourite for the job. William Hill has Mordaunt at 4/1, ahead of both Oliver Dowden and Michael Gove on 5/1.