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A week of questions (and taxes) avoided

On our 2023 bingo cards, most of us probably had ‘Conservative PM standing by a scandalous Minister and nearly bringing itself down in the process’, given the Party’s track form to date. This week however has been a bad one for scandal-ridden headlines and inside pages for Rishi Sunak’s administration.


It was announced this week that Nadhim Zahawi is to be investigated by an independent advisor over his tax affairs. It emerged that Zahawi, while Chancellor of the Exchequer, negotiated a settlement for underpaid UK taxes which included a fine. Questions will be asked of why Rishi Sunak did not press Zahawi more assertively on his tax affairs, originally reported by The Independant last year, before appointing him as a Cabinet Minister and head honcho of the Conservative Party. The scandal has attracted obvious criticism from Labour, but has likely stayed in the headlines due to fellow Conservatives being vocally critical of Mr Zahawi’s lack of transparency. Many commentators predicted a sacking before PMQs to spare Rishi Sunak a walloping (which Keir Starmer gladly gave him), which never came. The announcement of an independent investigation however has gone down like a bucket of cold sick with backbench MPs however, who fear they may have to field questions of ethics on the doorstep in the run-up to the local elections.


Our old acquaintance Boris Johnson has also made news this week. Despite a trip to Ukraine for the cantankerous former Prime Minister, he has not been able to escape coverage of scandal too. This week we learned from the Sunday Times that Boris Johnson secured a loan to the sum of £800,000. The credit facility loan is rumoured to have been guaranteed by a distant Canadian cousin of Johnson, introduced to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, by Richard Sharp just before he was recruited as the BBC’s chairman. To top things off for him, we also learned this week that the Commons Privileges Committee has begun writing to people asking them to submit evidence to its investigation into whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament in his numerous appearances during the scandal. True to his unbelievably fortuitous form though, Old Bozzer has been lucky that Nadhim Zahawi’s meaty tax affairs have been serious enough to throw to the ravenous lobby wolves this week.


Current Deputy PM and Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, also remains under investigation for bullying claims made by numerous civil servants and previous colleagues under his position throughout his Ministerial tenure. According to The Guardian this week, Raab is facing a very concerning 24 bullying allegations against him.


So, three Tory big-whigs are under investigation. Two of them in the cabinet. One former PM. A current PM that just last week received a fixed penalty notice for not wearing a seatbelt in his Ministerial car. And only a matter of months since it was concluded that the current Home Secretary has broken the Ministerial code. And culminating rather hilariously with a cabinet away day on Thursday, where the PM and his top team were briefed on the bleak electoral prospects facing the Party over the next two years.


How do backbench Conservative MPs feel about recent events? Again, many are concerned that the Party is too distracted by scandal to govern, and that this may distil down to the doorstep. There have been some faintly made points briefed anonymously to press that this week’s coverage could well be a Westminster storm in a teacup… but these voices grew fainter and fainter as the week went on.


Does the Party reek of a burnt-out machine soon to be kicked-out onto the patio to rust for a very long, cold winter? The local elections will be a test of this, not just for Rishi Sunak but for the Party’s wider appeal at local level too. Opinion polling continues to show Tory-fatigue among UK voters and the Labour Party still averaging a 20 point lead. With strikes, scandal and the cost-of-living dominating print and the waves, it is foreseeable that a poor local election result is very likely for the Conservatives, and could well entrench the already widely held suspicion that Rishi Sunak has very little control over his Party or the direction of the country. This of course, as we know, will oxygenate the Bring Back Boris crowd, who are clucking for an excuse to ramp-up their efforts to usher the former PM back into the top role.


But there are ripples of whispered hope convecting amongst Conservative MPs. With inflation expecting to rapidly reduce this year, the Chancellor taking a firm grip on public finances, and a recession looking to be slightly shorter and shallower than previously expected, it could well be that the Conservative Party finds itself in a far stronger footing in a year’s time come the next local elections. So it may be the case that in the run-up to this year’s locals, we see intense expectation management from 10 Downing Street, framing this year as a necessary loss to position the Party more positively for next year and beyond. This could come with the promise from Rishi Sunak to his MPs of tax cuts and a looser fiscal policy more broadly in the year before the General Election (which this week marked the point where we are at most two years away from).


GOOD NEWS beyond our shores however - as German Chancellor Olaf Shlutz this week gave the green light on the provision of tanks to Ukraine. In their struggle against Russia, the Ukrainians can now expect German Leopold-2s and American M1 Abrams which they hope can be instrumental in breaking poorly supplied and organised Russian lines in the eastern oblasts.


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