Rishi Sunak should encourage the Conservative party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, to resign because his position is untenable, a former Tory cabinet minister has said.
David Gauke and the Conservative peer Lord Hayward urged Zahawi to consider his position as he comes under increasing pressure over his tax affairs, with Sunak braced for a grilling at prime minister’s questions.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is expected to question Sunak on why he has refused to give in to pressure to fire Zahawi, and ask exactly what the prime minister knew when appointing Zahawi to the cabinet-attending role.
Gauke, who resigned as a cabinet minister in 2019, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday that the prime minister should encourage Zahawi to quit before a “very uncomfortable” PMQs.
The former justice secretary said: “I think I would be very tempted to, and if I was the prime minister I think I would be keen to encourage it. I think it is going to be very uncomfortable for Rishi Sunak at 12 o’clock today if Nadhim Zahawi is still in place.
“And although … Nadhim is a very popular figure with Conservative MPs, he is very well regarded as an effective minister and now chairman of the Conservative party, it is hard to see how this doesn’t ultimately end in his resignation.
“There are just too many impossible questions for him and the longer this drags on the more difficult it is for the prime minister, the more difficult it is for the Conservative party, probably [the] more difficult it is for Nadhim Zahawi.”
Hayward told Sky News: “We don’t know what the timescales are for the inquiry, and I think that’s key,. I think he should be considering whether he stands aside for the period of the inquiry.”
Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, accused Sunak of trying to “kick this into the long grass” by launching an ethics investigation into Zahawi’s tax affairs.
The prime minister ordered his ethics adviser to investigate whether Zahawi broke ministerial rules over the estimated £4.8m bill he settled with HMRC while chancellor.
Nandy told Times Radio: “I think it is deeply frustrating for the public, deeply frustrating for those people who pursued questions about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs and were threatened with legal action, deeply frustrating for all of us in the political system, that the government has once again tried to kick this into the long grass with an investigation rather than Nadhim Zahawi, who is in a very prominent position in British politics, just coming clean about what happened when he was chancellor.”
The senior Conservative MP Caroline Nokes has called on Zahawi to “stand aside until this matter is all cleared up”. David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has also urged Zahawi to “do the prime minister a favour and step down”, as he said “this story will go on and on” while Sunak spends “a lot of political capital defending Zahawi”.
Zahawi has insisted his “error” over shares in the YouGov polling company he co-founded was “careless and not deliberate” and said he was confident he “acted properly throughout”.