Written in an earlier time about misgivings over the accumulation of power and money, the words of F Scott Fitzgerald are apposite today. “They were careless people,” laments the narrator of his classic novel The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things … and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.” The Tory party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, paid, it appears, about £5m in penalties and outstanding taxes to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Mr Zahawi says his mistakes were “careless”. But how could the Conservatives ever have allowed somebody, as they did with Mr Zahawi, to become chancellor when he was in dispute with the tax authority, for which the chancellor is responsible? It is a conflict of interest that no one could miss – unless, perhaps, they too were being careless.
We all can be remiss. But not to the extent that we forget, apparently, to report an estimated £27m to HMRC. Rishi Sunak appointed Mr Zahawi to be Tory party chair and gave him a seat at his cabinet table. The prime minister claims not to have been apprised of the facts before defending Mr Zahawi at the dispatch box last week, or when he gave him his current job. A stronger prime minister would have done the right thing and sacked Mr Zahawi. Mr Sunak has referred the matter to his ethics adviser. But the occupant of No 10 does not need a report to tell him who should be in his cabinet. Mr Sunak is a weak prime minister: he has to go in to bat for colleagues for fear of them refusing to do the same for him. He risks the government losing trust in him.
Mr Zahawi was only chancellor for two months. But it speaks volumes about his character that he took the job. It would have been sloppy for Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, not to have known about Mr Zahawi’s tax problem before his promotion. That might explain why a story surfaced this weekend that claimed Mr Zahawi was denied a knighthood after the Cabinet Office contacted HMRC “as part of the normal due diligence”. Mr Case would also have been negligent not to have raised the prospective chancellor’s tax conflict with Boris Johnson, the then prime minister. It may be too much to ask for Mr Johnson, a serial liar, to find anything improper in the arrangement. But he should have vetoed Mr Zahawi for the role.
Reputations rarely survive contact with Mr Johnson. He thinks it’s fine for the current BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, to have helped arrange a guarantee on a loan of up to £800,000 for himself weeks before recommending him for the role. Neither man reported this arrangement, which they should have. Mr Sharp was privy to politically damaging information. The public perception of the BBC’s impartiality and independence has been harmed by its chair’s lack of judgment. Auntie’s board will look at the matter, and the public appointments commissioner will investigate Mr Sharp’s appointment after being urged to intervene by Labour’s Lucy Powell. However, don’t hold your breath. A wealthy insider, Mr Sharp has made his services too useful to be dispensed with easily.
These goings-on offer a parable about the corrupting role of inequality in society, a central theme of Fitzgerald’s book. What has made Britain ungovernable is not strikes and inflation but factional infighting within the Conservatives – which looks like a party of the rich, for the rich. Mr Sunak’s government seems too riven by disputes and too weak to implement big reforms. The impotence of Mr Sunak has replaced the chaos of Mr Johnson. With the Tories in charge, Britain has become a country with a government that cannot do anything of importance.