LONDON — Struggling to dispel an ethical cloud that has hung over his government, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Sunday fired the chair of Britain’s Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi, over his personal tax affairs.
Sunak acted after his ethics adviser concluded that Zahawi’s failure to promptly disclose an inquiry into his taxes — which resulted in a settlement and penalty with the British tax authority estimated to be roughly 5 million pounds (about $6.2 million) — was a “serious breach” of the ministerial code.
In a briskly worded letter to Zahawi, whom he also fired from an accompanying role as a government minister, Sunak said he had promised voters when he became prime minister in October that “the government I lead would have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”
As a result of the ethics investigation, conducted by a government adviser, Laurie Magnus, the prime minister wrote, “I have informed you of my decision to remove you from your position in His Majesty’s government.”
The ouster of Zahawi, a wealthy businessman of Iraqi Kurdish descent who served previously as chancellor of the Exchequer, is a stinging blow to Sunak. The prime minister rose to power by helping topple a scandal-scarred predecessor, Boris Johnson, but his government has been unable to shake off many of the same ethics problems that haunted Johnson.
Zahawi, 55, is the second minister in three months to be forced out over accusations of wrongdoing. Gavin Williamson resigned in November as a minister without portfolio after accusations of bullying.
Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, is under investigation for multiple charges that he bullied civil servants while serving as foreign secretary and justice secretary in a previous government. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, was fired from an earlier stint in the post over allegations of mishandling an official document.
Even Sunak has become a serial offender, if on matters that are less grave than those facing his ministers. He was fined recently by the police in Lancashire, in northwest England, after being filmed not wearing a seat belt in the back of his official car. Last year, he and Johnson were fined for breaching pandemic lockdown restrictions by attending a social gathering in Downing Street at a time when such gatherings were banned.
For Sunak, the latest scandal will make it even harder for him to pivot to fixing Britain’s faltering economy. His Conservative Party is already lagging the opposition Labour Party by double digits in some polls. Accusations of “Tory sleaze” are a daily staple in the British news media — one reason that support for the Conservatives has collapsed since Johnson won a landslide general election victory in 2019.
“If you believe that prime ministers set an example for the rest of their colleagues, then it’s hardly surprising that an administration run for three years by a one-man moral minefield like Boris Johnson is exhibiting more than its fair share of ethical failings,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
A senior Labour politician, Bridget Phillipson, told the BBC on Sunday that Sunak had been “too weak” to dismiss Zahawi sooner, despite long-standing questions about his finances. “The reason this keeps happening,” she said, “is we have a government whose only principle is party first, country second.”
Zahawi’s political survival had been in doubt for weeks, since the disclosure that while he was serving as chancellor he was under investigation by the Revenue and Customs authority for unpaid taxes. In a statement Jan. 21, Zahawi said the tax authority characterized it as a “careless and not deliberate error.”
But Magnus said in his report that Zahawi had erred in failing to disclose the investigation into his taxes when he became chancellor. He should have recognized, Magnus wrote, that this was a serious matter that needed to be declared as a conflict of interest before he could accept any government post.
Another senior minister, Michael Gove, told the BBC on Sunday that neither Sunak nor his predecessor, Liz Truss, had known enough about Zahawi’s tax problems to conclude he could not serve as a minister.
Zahawi’s firing brings a sudden end to the career of one of the Conservative Party’s most distinctive rising stars. Born in Baghdad to a Kurdish family, Zahawi came to Britain at age 11, when his parents fled the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Trained as a chemical engineer, he co-founded a highly successful market research firm, YouGov, before entering politics as a member of Parliament for Stratford-on-Avon in central England.
Zahawi came to national prominence in late 2020, when Johnson named him to lead the deployment of coronavirus vaccines during the depths of the pandemic. Britain had one of fastest rollouts of any major country, and Zahawi, with his engineering background and entrepreneurial skills, won much of the credit for it.
He was promoted to education minister, later becoming chancellor when Sunak resigned from that post in July 2022 to protest the ethical storms then engulfing Johnson. After Johnson quit, Zahawi declared himself a candidate for party leader, though he withdrew quickly after winning few votes from lawmakers.
During the dizzying upheavals of the summer — Johnson giving way to Truss, who was then forced out after 45 days in favor of Sunak — Zahawi often seemed to be on every side. He backed Truss; then Johnson, when he toyed with idea of running again in October; and, finally, Sunak.
But as Zahawi navigated the treacherous shoals of Tory politics, his finances were coming under constant scrutiny. His sale of YouGov, which made Zahawi wealthy, led to the dispute over unpaid taxes. British newspapers reported that he allocated founder’s shares to his father, which were held in an offshore family trust. Zahawi denied he was trying to avoid taxes, but his settlement included a sizable penalty.
In a letter to Sunak, Zahawi said he was proud of his work on the vaccine rollout and in helping to organize the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in September, which he did in a previous role as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the most prestigious posts in the Cabinet. He made no direct reference to his tax problems but bitterly criticized news coverage of the issue, which had once led him to complain that he was being “smeared.”
“I fail to see how one headline on the issue, ‘The Noose Tightens,’ reflects legitimate scrutiny of public officials,” Zahawi wrote. “I am sorry to my family for the toll this has taken on them.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.