Sunak, the passive PM, had the chance to tackle the scourge of long Boris Johnson – and shirked it

<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/PA</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/PA

It is a year since Boris Johnson was nearly brought down by the Partygate scandal, and Rishi Sunak was almost brave enough to finish the job. But he didn’t, not the first time. Not the second time either. He still hasn’t finished the job.

Events were moving fast in January 2022. The stories of lockdown breaches in Downing Street had started appearing the previous November. Each case was followed by a denial; each denial was falsified by new evidence. The prime minister’s position was uncertain. Johnson apologised to parliament for attending an oversized gathering in the garden of No 10. He claimed he had thought it was a work meeting.

The chancellor, Sunak, was not in the Commons. He was visiting a factory in Devon, too busy to voice support for his embattled boss. Phone reception was patchy. There was no wifi. The prime minister and his allies interpreted radio silence as the sound of disloyalty.

Sunak inched closer to courage a few weeks later. In heated Commons exchanges, Johnson deployed a wild conspiracy theory that made Keir Starmer, as former director of public prosecutions, somehow responsible for failure to have brought Jimmy Savile to justice.

Tory MPs were divided. Cynics and sycophants defended their leader; others could not. Sunak straddled the line. “I wouldn’t have said it,” the chancellor conceded, a half-repudiation after Johnson had already issued a half-retraction.

Sunak’s equivocations around Johnson’s misdeeds contained clues to the way he would later govern as prime minister. Taking a nearly courageous stand isn’t much better than staying seated; being almost decisive is the same as indecision.

Related: Martin Rowson on Rishi Sunak’s sleaze nightmares — cartoon

Even weak prime ministers have the power to make news, but Sunak looks passive, besieged by events, a leader to whom things happen. He didn’t arrange Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, for example, nor did he know about them in any detail, as Downing Street insists. But that isn’t a great defence of a prime minister whose first promise in office was “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at every level. If he wasn’t sure whether the Conservative chairman failed that test, it was his job to find out. He doesn’t need an ethics adviser to investigate when he has appointed himself ethics investigator-in-chief. He just needed to make a judgment call. But he waited.

That integrity pledge was an attack on previous Conservative leaders that bounces off its intended targets and keeps rebounding on to Sunak. To govern with professionalism and accountability would require clearing out all the enablers of turpitude and the apologists for incompetence. The prime minister’s base in his party isn’t wide or sturdy enough to withstand such a purge. Besides, he has already granted himself an amnesty, as Johnson’s long-serving chancellor.

Sunak only left the good ship Boris once he was sure it was sinking. He was replaced by Zahawi, which should have been a red flag. Here is a man who believed that Britain’s interests on 5 July 2022 were best served by propping up Johnson’s moribund administration, or who was prepared to fake that belief. Either way, it isn’t a political character reference.

The Zahawi episode is a symptom of long Johnson, the chronic, recurrent debilitation of government by a pathogen that still circulates in the ruling party long after the original infection has been treated.

Too many Tories have forgotten how urgent it was that they change their leader last summer. Despair at Johnson’s misrule was overwritten with panic when his successor turned out to be even worse, although Liz Truss won the leadership as the candidate of Borisite continuity. This, too, seems to be forgotten by the faction that hankers for restoration of the great bloviator.

Johnson endorsed Truss knowing she was incapable of doing the job, knowing she would fail and that her failure would facilitate regret over his defenestration. Also, he wanted to spite Sunak, a mission he accomplished so thoroughly that the current prime minister is still reviled by many Conservatives as a backstabber.

Related: Clunk click: Rishi buckles up on the greasy ethics pole | John Crace

The label flatters Sunak with a ruthless determination he lacks. He didn’t stab Johnson in the back; he poked him in the eye with a spoon. Now the swelling has gone down and the ex-leader is back in the game, swanning around Davos, flying to Kyiv to meet President Zelenskiy, opining across the front page of the Daily Mail. And generating scandal, of course, because the geyser of sleaze never runs dry.

The latest revelation is that Richard Sharp, Johnson’s preferred candidate for BBC chair, was involved in helping arrange a line of credit to a Canadian multimillionaire while the appointment process was going on. Sharp, a Conservative donor, doesn’t think there was a conflict of interest there. Johnson agrees.

Maybe everyone involved in the conversations simply forgot about the top BBC gig, and the duty to keep it free of perceived political capture, because they were too busy thinking about the prime minister’s parlous personal finances. What other deals were done to keep the profligate Johnson in the manner to which he was accustomed, and for which his prime ministerial salary was insufficient?

That is a question Sunak could put to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary who also helped broker Johnson’s bailout. Case is still the country’s most senior civil servant, on hand with an itemised list of the skeletons he has arranged in Downing Street closets.

But if Sunak asked that sort of question he’d have to do something with the answer, which isn’t his style. He doesn’t want a detailed inquest into the probity of a regime in which he served for so long and to which a powerful Tory faction is stubbornly loyal. He can’t deliver integrity in government without naming the people who brought his party into disrepute. He is afraid to hold a postmortem on the reign of a leader whose career is far from dead. He should have finished it when he had the chance.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist