Rishi Sunak has insisted he acted “decisively” in sacking Nadhim Zahawi as chairman of the Conservative Party after a row over his tax affairs.
Speaking in Country Durham at the launch of his government’s emergency care plan, the prime minister defended his handling of situation and stressed his commitment to “integrity” and the need to follow proper processes.
“What I have done is follow a process, which is the right process,” he said.
“Integrity is really important to me – all of you guys want to see that government is run properly, that it is run with integrity and there’s accountability when people don’t behave in the way that they should or if something doesn’t go right, and that’s what we’ve done.”
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Mr Sunak also promised he would “take whatever steps are necessary to restore the integrity back into politics”.
“The things that happened before I was prime minister, I can’t do anything about,” the prime minister said.
“What I think you can hold me to account for is how I deal with the things that arise on my watch.
“And as you’ve seen, you know, when it came to Nadhim Zahawi, I asked the independent adviser to look at it straight away, acted on his findings straight away.
“That should give you some confidence that these things matter to me, and that I will take whatever steps are necessary to restore the integrity back into politics, and you can have confidence that the process works.”
Mr Zahawi was sacked as Tory party chairman on Sunday after an ethics inquiry into the handling of his tax affairs found a “serious breach” of the ministerial code.
Mr Sunak had resisted earlier calls from opposition parties to fire Mr Zahawi following reports that he had paid a penalty as part of an estimated £4.8m settlement dispute with HMRC.
But following the conclusion of an inquiry into the matter by his new ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus – which found that Mr Zahawi had “shown insufficient regard for the general principles of the ministerial code” – Mr Sunak swiftly removed the former Tory chairman from his post.
Critics of Mr Sunak have said he should have acted sooner in dismissing Mr Zahawi.
But the prime minister said it was on the basis of the facts contained in Sir Laurie’s report released on Sunday morning that he was “able to make a very quick decision that it was no longer appropriate for Nadhim Zahawi to continue in government”.
The PM’s official spokesperson reiterated to reporters on Monday that Mr Zahawi’s tax penalty was not disclosed to Mr Sunak upon his appointment.
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Yesterday, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner and chairwoman Anneliese Dodds wrote to Mr Sunak asking him to give the public “full transparency” about what he knew about the investigation into Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs and when.
Ms Dodds described Mr Sunak as “weak” for not sacking Mr Zahawi “when this murky affair first surfaced”.
Ms Rayner added: “Rishi Sunak shouldn’t have needed an ethics adviser to tell him that Nadhim Zahawi’s position was untenable, but instead he continued to prop up the man he appointed to cabinet.”
Speaking to Sky News earlier today, shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested the PM could have been lying about what he knew about Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs.
Asked whether he believed Mr Sunak has lied about what he knew of the matter, Mr Thomas-Symonds replied: “How could the prime minister not have known about the fact of the investigation when Mr Zahawi declared it in July?”
The row surrounding Mr Zahawi had centred on a tax bill over the sale of shares in YouGov – the polling firm he founded worth an estimated £27m – which were held by Balshore Investments, a company registered offshore in Gibraltar and linked to Mr Zahawi’s family.
Mr Zahawi had insisted he was “confident” he had “acted properly throughout”.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper has called on Mr Sunak to withdraw the Conservative whip from Mr Zahawi “if he refuses to stand down as an MP” as he is “simply not fit to represent his constituents”.
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In a letter to Mr Sunak following his sacking – in which he made no apology for his actions – Mr Zahawi told the PM he can be “assured of my support from the backbenches in the coming years”.
Speaking to Sky News on Monday, health minister Helen Whately said she thought the PM followed a “fair” process when deciding to sack the former Conservative party chairman.