Rishi Sunak vows to crack down on sleaze and restore ‘integrity’ after Zahawi sacking

Rishi Sunak has vowed to crack down on sleaze in government and restore “integrity” after he sacked Nadhim Zahawi over his tax affairs.

The PM said he had made a “quick decision” to fire the Tory chairman after his ethics adviser found “serious” violations of the ministerial code, more than six months after The Independent revealed an HMRC investigation.

Speaking at NHS hospital in County Durham, Mr Sunak said he had acted “pretty decisively” by ordering Sir Laurie Magnus’ probe after it emerged Mr Zahawi had paid a £1m penalty to HMRC.

Asked why so many top Tories had trouble following the rules, Mr Sunak said: “The things that happened before I was prime minister I can’t do anything about – what I think you can hold me to account for is how I deal with things that arise on my watch.”

The PM said: “As you’ve seen with Nazhim Zahawi, I asked the independent adviser to look at it straight away, acted on his findings straight away. 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.

Senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown – treasurer of the party’s powerful 1922 committee – said Mr Zahawi should now consider resigning his Stratford-Upon-Avon seat.

Sir Geoffrey told BBC 5 Live: “I think the best outcome to this would be if Nadhim said he didn’t want to stand. I’m sure he will be considering very carefully what his future in politics is in the next few weeks.”

The Lib Dems have called on Mr Zahawi to step down, saying he was no longer “fit” to represent his Stratford-Upon-Avon constituents.

The party has also written to Mr Sunak calling on him to withdraw the Conservative whip from Mr Zahawi, and called for inquiry into legal threats made against media outlets and campaigners by the ex-chancellor.

Labour has 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.

Anneliese Dodds – who has accused the Tories of “drowning of sleaze” – told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme her party has written to the PM to ask when he found out about the HMRC probe into the former Tory chair.

She said: “We also have a very senior minister who has broken security rules, we also have allegations of bullying against a senior minister. This seems to be a case of Rishi Sunak putting his party’s interest above the country’s interest.”

The ex-chancellor’s 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. The register has not been published since May 2022.

Mr Zahawi is said to be “furious” about his sacking by Mr Sunak, according to The Times, and is considering a formal response to the details set out in the ethics adviser’s report.

But Mr Sunak’s official spokesman rejected the idea any government officials knew of a 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.”

Rishi Sunak speaking at County Durham hospital on Monday (PA)
Rishi Sunak speaking at County Durham hospital on Monday (PA)

Meanwhile, the PM promised his urgent care plan will deliver “the largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times in the NHS’s history”.

But Mr Sunak was forced to defend dropping the NHS target of responding to heart attacks and strokes within 18 minutes this year. Asked about ambulance waiting times, the PM said that “fingers crossed” there will already have been improvements since December.

He said: “Of course it’s not good enough, of course – gosh – what happened in December was not great. We will get back to 30 minutes over the course of this year and then we will get back to pre-pandemic levels thereafter, I would say that is ambitious.”

Promises of thousands more hospital beds and 800 new ambulances are at the centre of a new plan that the government hopes will boost urgent and emergency care, after a difficult winter dominated by grim warnings about the severe pressure facing the NHS.

But Mr Sunak was warned that scale of the challenge facing the NHS will not be fixed without tackling funding and staffing.

Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing’s director for England, said: “The real problem is the lack of staff. Extra beds are only safe when there are enough nurses for the patients in them. And because of the workforce crisis, existing services are unsafe.”