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Rishi Sunak struggles to defend party chairman Nadhim Zahawi at PMQs

L’affaire Zahawi pongs like an old kipper stashed behind a radiator: HENRY DEEDES watches Rishi Sunak struggling to defend his party chairman

When an overloaded lifeboat begins taking on water, its captain faces a stark choice: he can hope to ride out the storm, or he can resolve to cast out the heftiest passenger, leaving them to the scant mercy of the sea.

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With the Government’s reputation for integrity, such as it is, dipping perilously beneath the waterline thanks to Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, the Prime Minister has thus far opted for the former. Yet the longer this saga swirls on, the more likely it is that Mr Sunak will eventually have to drop the Tory Party chairman into the briny deep. The truth is that Zahawi’s little squabble with the bean counters at HMRC has made him a minister with way, way too much baggage.

At PMQs yesterday, Sunak did not face the tying and trussing that many had anticipated. A characteristically woolly performance by Sir Keir Starmer denied us that spectacle. And perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Hand Sir Keir a custard pie to throw and somehow he’ll make it land on his own face.

PM Rishi Sunak (pictured at PMQs yesterday) will eventually have to drop the Tory Party chairman into the briny deep. The truth is that Nadhim Zahawi’s little squabble with the bean counters at HMRC has made him a minister with way, way too much baggage

The stench surrounding the Zahawi (pictured Tuesday) business is clearly not going away. Instead, the pong looks set to linger around the Commons like a week-old kipper which someone has stashed behind a radiator

The stench surrounding the Zahawi (pictured Tuesday) business is clearly not going away. Instead, the pong looks set to linger around the Commons like a week-old kipper which someone has stashed behind a radiator

But the stench surrounding the Zahawi business is clearly not going away. Instead, the pong looks set to linger around the Commons like a week-old kipper which someone has stashed behind a radiator.

You could see the PM knew he was in for a rough ride as soon as he entered the Chamber. Gone was the playground swagger of previous weeks. For the first time in these bouts, he chose to wear his spectacles, no doubt hoping it would help him appear suitably earnest.

As he took his seat, Labour’s benches swiftly gathered throat. ‘Where’s Nadhim? Where’s Nadhim?’ they chirped. Unsurprisingly, Zahawi was AWOL. MIA.

Sir Keir wrong-footed the House by asking first about Zara Aleena, the law graduate murdered by Jordan McSweeney just nine days after the thug was released from prison. After a noisy start, a mournful hush suddenly descended upon the House. It does that sometimes. The mood here can change quicker than the weather in the Outer Hebrides.

Starmer pinned the blame on government ‘under-investment’ in the probation service. It turned out he had spoken to Zara’s parents hours earlier, who had told him that the Government had ‘blood on its hands’.

No one could blame them for feeling that. But was it right for the Labour leader to be making capital out of such an intimate conversation? ‘Discuss,’ as they say in academia.

Sir Keir Starmer (pictured at PMQs yesterday) accused Sunak of being ¿weak¿ for not sacking Zahawi and suggested the job of PM was ¿too big for him¿, an apparent jibe about Rishi¿s height. Witless. Needless to say, Labour MPs thought it hysterical

Sir Keir Starmer (pictured at PMQs yesterday) accused Sunak of being ‘weak’ for not sacking Zahawi and suggested the job of PM was ‘too big for him’, an apparent jibe about Rishi’s height. Witless. Needless to say, Labour MPs thought it hysterical

With the Chamber stilled, talk suddenly turned to l’affaire Zahawi. The shift in tone was jarring, as subtle as a learner driver crunching into third gear. 

Sunak conceded that his remarks at the despatch box the previous week, which indicated that the matter had been ‘addressed in full’, were not entirely accurate. Since then, he admitted, ‘more issues had come to light’. Translation: My front bench colleague hasn’t been totally straight up with me. Oh dear. Labour MPs let fly a volley of jeers.

Soon came the insults. In Starmer’s case, these are becoming increasingly ad hominem each week, which doesn’t much suit him. You get the impression he’s the sort of person who prefers to usher flies out of an open window rather than splat them with a newspaper.

He accused Sunak of being ‘weak’ for not sacking Zahawi and suggested the job of PM was ‘too big for him’, an apparent jibe about Rishi’s height. Witless. Needless to say, Labour MPs thought it hysterical.

There was also a dig about Mrs Sunak’s non-dom status. Rishi winced as though someone had squirted a jet of lemon juice at his eyeballs. Loathes his family being dragged into his affairs. As would Starmer, though so far Rishi has rightly left them well alone.

Instead, Rishi resorted to his tried-and-tested attack about Sir Keir choosing to serve alongside Jeremy Corbyn. It got a decent cheer but thanks to Zahawi he was on a hiding to nothing.

Man overboard time?


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