On Monday morning, Rishi Sunak was unable to find a single member of the government willing to go on television and defend the transparently indefensible. By Tuesday morning things had got worse: Chris Philp had said yes.
Even without the specific personnel involved, it would already be auto-ironic. Rishi Sunak has not found it within him yet to sack Nadhim Zahawi from his cabinet role. He has instead referred him to his new “Whitehall ethics adviser” (the previous one resigned after she was found to have provided a karaoke machine for a drinks party in Downing Street in the middle of lockdown. I don’t write this stuff. I just type it out).
This, to be clear, is not to be confused with the prime minister’s ethics adviser, principally because the prime minister doesn’t have one anymore. The two most recent ones resigned while working for Boris Johnson, one because he was lied to about who was paying for the two hundred grand flat refurb – and the other one because he concluded Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code over bullying junior staff, but then concluded that Boris Johnson didn’t care.
Where were we? So yes, Rishi Sunak has to wait for his Whitehall ethics adviser to tell him whether or not Nadhim Zahawi had actually done anything wrong when he suddenly remembered he hadn’t paid about £3.7m in tax, and has had to pay another £1.3m on top of that in the form of a “penalty”. (Or so we are led to believe, Nadhim Zahawi has thus far declined to actually tell us the full truth.) What isn’t in dispute though, is that when Nadhim Zahawi was accused of doing various things he now admits he has done, he threatened to sue the various newspapers that made the allegations – including this one. It’s not clear whether this particular – and particularly egregious aspect – of the whole saga is even something the ethics adviser will investigate. Which would mean, very clearly, that Rishi Sunak doesn’t especially care about it.
Still, enter Philp. He is a man still largely unknown but if known at all, it would be for being number two at the Treasury while Kwasi Kwarteng accidentally set it on fire. It was he who, in his infinite wisdom, very publicly “welcomed” the rising of the rate of sterling against the dollar in the wake of Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, at the moment it which it rose by approximately 0.001 per cent before plummeting to its lowest level in almost forty years.
Philp is your almost archetypal 2023 Tory. Think Matt Hancock but without the loveable charm. A man who would say absolutely anything at all if he thought it would please the person who told him to say it. As he made his way from between the radio and TV studios the nation would be told how Sunak had acted “quickly and decisively” in not sacking Nadhim Zahawi. He would accidentally announce that Zahawi had owed £5m in tax, even though the rest of the government has been trying its hardest not to confirm any of the numbers involved.
He would announce that Sunak’s little investigation would allow him to “retain public confidence”, even as his personal approval ratings plummeted to their lowest-ever level. Sunak has found himself having to announce two investigations in one day. One over Zahawi, the other over how it was that a bloke who was happy to get involved in an £800,000 personal loan to Boris Johnson (until he was told that he couldn’t) somehow ended up being appointed chair of the BBC.
The problem for Sunak is that the sound of hapless ministers trying and failing to defend the indefensible is the ubiquitous, unturndownable, stuck-on-loop soundtrack of the last three years. It’s all we’ve heard for as long as anyone can remember. And it was really meant to stop with Boris Johnson, but it rolls endlessly on. Before this, it was Suella Braverman explaining how she’d done the honourable thing and resigned from a job she was then reappointed to six days later.
Sunak is really meant to be ending the rolling government-by-farce clown show. But he’s absolutely not. Keir Starmer, on the other hand, has scarcely turned down any opportunity to sack anyone making the Labour Party look ridiculous. Starmer had been in his current job for even less time than Sunak has been in his when he defenestrated the Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey for the crime of retweeting an interview with a Coronation Street actor that contained a deranged antisemitic conspiracy theory. It is through actions such as these that Starmer has turned perceptions of his party around very quickly indeed.
If Sunak needs the Whitehall ethics adviser, and worse, Chris Philp, to hold his hand for him while he does anything remotely difficult, then the Conservatives are in even bigger trouble than they might imagine.