Nadhim, pray, blub: Rishi Sunak looks lost and bewildered at PMQs | John Crace

Praying. Waiting on a miracle. For much of Wednesday morning, Rishi Sunak was holed up in Downing Street. Staring at his phone. Willing it to ring.

  • Nadhim? Fancy you calling! How can I help? Oh, you want to offer your resignation. Oh that’s really sad. Awful. I’m sorry to hear that …

  • Well, if you want me to stay, prime minister …

  • No, no. I can see your mind is made up and that you’re determined to go. So I won’t be standing in your way. Thank you for all you have done in the three months you’ve been in the job. Three months longer than you probably should have been … But never mind. Onwards and sideways.

Only the phone never rang. Nadhim Zahawi still couldn’t see what he had done wrong. What was the problem with trying to avoid tax? Hell, who wouldn’t when you owed £3.7m? That’s far more than the little people pay in a lifetime. And sure, the £1m penalty was a bit of a nuisance. An occupational hazard. You win some, you lose some. Then there was the threatening journalists who were going to write the truth. You can’t have the media being accurate …

You might have thought that at some point it would have occurred to Rish! that he had some agency in the matter. That as prime minister he had it in his power to sack the Tory party chair. Except, when push came to shove, Sunak just couldn’t bring himself to be that brutal. He just didn’t have it in him.

He knew what it was to be a fugitive from the authorities. A serial offender with lockdown parties and unfixed seatbelts on his charge. So he owed it to Nadhim to keep him on. Even if the government looked totally corrupt.

Or maybe it was that the Tory party was just ungovernable. That he couldn’t ask Zahawi to resign in case he said no. That the only reason MPs had chosen Sunak to be their leader was because he could be relied on to be ineffective. Not even someone to manage the inevitable decline. Rather someone to let things go completely to shit. Freefall. Bring it on.

Whatever. One way or another, Zahawi was still in a job when Sunak appeared in the Commons for prime minister’s questions. Labour voices greeted his arrival with yells of “where’s Nadhim?” Rish! shrugged. He had no idea. One lone existential howl of pain echoed from his own benches. The chronicle of a death foretold.

Keir Starmer opened with the failures of the probation service that had led to the murder of Zara Aleena. Could Sunak explain why yet another public service had fallen to bits under the Tory government? And did he agree with Zara’s parents that the government had blood on its hands. Rish! looked bewildered. A rabbit in the headlights. Without one thing to boast about. It was all terrible, he said, though he was proud of the government’s record. Really? Maybe he’d like to remind us of one thing that was working. We’re waiting. Or maybe he just thinks we’re stupid.

Then the Labour leader got stuck in on Zahawi. He knew Sunak didn’t like being reminded of rich people trying to avoid paying tax. Couldn’t imagine why. And he certainly didn’t want to open wounds. Or euphoric recall. But he did rather need to mention the elephant in the Tory living room. So let’s try a straightforward question to which no one could object. Should a politician who had tried to avoid tax be in charge of the nation’s taxes?

Rish! rummaged through his folder of prepared answers looking for the ideal put-down. He couldn’t find one. So he had no choice but to be creative. He had been entirely accurate when he had said last week that Zahawi hadn’t done anything wrong. It was just this week that he wasn’t so sure. The truth wasn’t absolute. It was more of a spectrum when it came to wheeler-dealers.

So now it transpires there may have been something not entirely right about Nadhim’s tax form, but it had all happened before he became prime minister. And as everyone knows, there is a statute of limitations on all tax matters when a new prime minister takes office, so he was confident he and Nadhim were in the clear.

Even his own backbenchers went quiet at this. Even by Sunak’s usual standards, this was total doggybollox. Meaningless. Since when was any of this OK? But he had reported it to his ethics adviser so his hands were tied. Er … why? It’s not as if any of the facts are in dispute. The entire sorry affair was out in the open. The tax avoidance scheme. The penalty. The threatening of journalists. What more did anyone want? What was required was the prime minister to do the right thing and sack his minister.

Starmer finished by observing that Sunak was hopelessly weak. The country was in crisis. The government was in crisis. Maybe the job was too big for him. This stung. Not just because Rish! is slight. But because it had the ring of truth.

‘Hopelessly weak’: Keir Starmer attacks PM over his handling of Zahawi’s taxes – video

He isn’t the safe pair of hands he sold himself to us as. He’s not as venal as Boris Johnson. Nor as deranged as Liz Truss. But he is still demonstrably useless. People look, but they can’t see the point of him. He tried to talk about being a man of principles, but his voice was lost in the aether. He has no principles other than his own survival. Hell, he put up with Boris for years before belatedly tendering his resignation.

This wasn’t the end. The SNP leader in the Commons, Stephen Flynn, is growing into the job. At earlier PMQs he would try too hard. Now he is more relaxed and his questions much improved. He has a lean and hungry look. Such men are dangerous. What was the best way of improving the family finances? Getting the chair of the BBC to arrange you a loan? Fiddling your taxes? Or becoming a non-dom. Sunak looked as if he might burst into tears.

A few Tories tried to bail Sunak out by thanking him for money from the levelling up fund, but it was all a bit halfhearted. They know their man is finished. Even if he hangs on for another year or so. The opposition kept up the pressure. Clive Efford wondered why Sunak, as then chancellor, had enabled a Russian warlord under sanctions to sue a British journalist. Rish! twitched nervously. It wasn’t him. It was his civil servants. Naughty civil servants.

By the end of the session, Sunak couldn’t even be bothered to contradict when the SNP’s Martyn Day suggested Brexit might not be going awfully well. He had enough battles to fight, without dealing with another reality.

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