Further inspirational developments in British public life, as yet another inquiry is launched into a serving member of the government. Having spent last week claiming that party chair and former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi had addressed the murky matter of his taxes “in full”, prime minister Rishi Sunak declared yesterday: “I have asked our independent adviser to get to the bottom of everything.” Deep waters and all that. It’s good Sunak makes it sound like a real dredging exercise for which hazmat divers have been deployed and a forensic dentist put on standby.
After her dignified exit last week, we had to endure a lot of tedious discourse as to whether or not Jacinda Ardern could really “have it all”. After Zahawi’s preposterously undignified decision not to exit this week, you’d hope No 10 would be asking: can Nadhim really “have it all” – a top job in government and a tax bill as slim as Jonathan Gullis’s intellect? No, would seem to be the obvious answer – but it doesn’t seem to be the one on which Zahawi has alighted.
“In order to ensure the independence of this process,” he said yesterday, “you will understand that it would be inappropriate to discuss this issue any further.” Any further? He hasn’t discussed it at all, unless you count legal threats for “smears” that seem to have turned out to be “facts”. But yet again, the public finds itself in a familiar limbo: being told it would not be “proper” to pre-empt the findings of yet another formal inquiry. These things must be cheaper by the dozen.
The justice secretary is under formal investigation for bullying. The guy who was chancellor is under formal investigation over his tax affairs. He is now party chairman, charged with representing the government on the public stage. His predecessor in the role of chancellor, one Rishi Sunak, was found to have a wife who used non-dom status to avoid paying UK tax on her vast fortune. They had an inquiry related to that – though only into how the information got leaked.
Sunak’s predecessor-but-one in the role of prime minister was himself the subject of a number of protracted inquiries by everyone from standards officials to senior civil servants to the police, whose results we were forever being warned it would not be “proper” to pre-empt.
The privileges committee investigation into Boris Johnson is still continuing, and soon to reassume centre stage; there are now also two new inquiries into the appointment of the BBC’s chairman amid allegations he assisted Johnson in securing a loan of up to £800,000 weeks before the then PM appointed him to the role. Whatever any of this is, are the right words for the permanent state of investigative limbo in which government exists really “appropriate” and “proper”?
As far as Zahawi goes, the fact that will be immediately obvious to a public currently staring down the business end of the January tax return deadline is that the then chancellor having to pay millions of pounds of avoided tax and a penalty to HMRC, for which he was responsible for at the time, is a total and utter pisstake.
Still, I’m excited for rookie ministerial ethics chief Laurie Magnus, who now has his first case. It’ll be fun to find out Laurie’s procedural style – will it be the every-stone-left-unturned approach favoured by his predecessor, Lord Geidt, or maybe the silent despair that engulfed Geidt’s predecessor, Alex Allan, who opted to resign when his lengthy investigation finding that Priti Patel had breached the ministerial code was overruled by Boris Johnson quickly deciding she hadn’t.
Arguably the big question for Magnus to scrawl on the investigation whiteboard is: who taxes the taxman? Like me, you wouldn’t want to pre-empt anything, but you would hope that the guy who had ultimate oversight of the Inland Revenue at the time did not actually spend an unspecified chunk of his tenure trying to negotiate his own multimillion-pound shortcomings in this department.
As for Sunak, his decision to prolong this with an ethics investigation simply underlines his weakness and poor judgment, as well as landing a prime minister with his specific domestic vulnerabilities on this front in an awful lot of stories with the word “tax” in the headline. Of course, Zahawi is frequently described as “personable” and “well liked” among Conservative MPs, which in light of information serves as another reminder that not paying proper tax is the acceptable form of sociopathy.
Then again, you can tell quite a lot about Zahawi’s situation by the calibre or absence of his defenders. This morning the government served up Home Office minister Chris Philp as the broadcast-round sacrifice. Philp has been involved in multiple firms that have gone bust, in some cases reportedly owing money to the taxman. I note he describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur”, which is a bit like someone with syphilis describing themselves as a “hopeless romantic”. Like others sent over the top in recent days, Philp this morning leant chiefly on the formulation that something or other “is my understanding”, or that something or other was the prime minister’s “understanding”. Yet there are clearly a whole lot of things left to be understood. The public is presented with the bizarre spectacle of people who work with each other every day claiming that “we don’t know”. Then why don’t you save everyone a lot of drawn-out pain and just ask? You have to wonder if anyone at the top of government talks to each other.
To remind ourselves of the absurdist timeline of all this, Zahawi was only appointed chancellor when Sunak resigned in the dying days of Johnson’s government – the equivalent of earning your dream promotion to second officer on the Hindenburg shortly after bits of its ashes started raining down on New Jersey. Barely a few hours later, even Zahawi seemed to have clocked this state of affairs, releasing a statement on Treasury letterhead explaining that he had subsequently tried to get Johnson to resign. “Yesterday I made clear to the prime minster that there was only one direction where this was going, and that he should leave with dignity … I am heartbroken that he hasn’t listened,” this hammed. “Prime minister,” Nadhim concluded, “you know in your heart what the right thing to do is, and go now.”
Overall impressions? Nadhim’s grammar and sense of to whom exactly this document is addressed are all over the shop. But there is a kernel of good advice in there for the situation in which he now finds himself, if he’d only let himself take it, and take it now.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist