The stench coming from this government? It’s the corrupt mixture of private wealth and public squalor | Jonathan Freedland
He might have gone by the time you read this. He certainly should have. But we are in the age of shamelessness now, when revelations that would once have driven public figures to hide in mortified penance now prompt not so much as an apology, let alone a resignation.
I’m speaking of the Conservative party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, but not only him. For the proliferating questions about Zahawi’s finances, like those surrounding the appointment of the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, point to a phenomenon that is both wider and deeper.
The official line on Zahawi is what we might call the Sue Gray formulation: that we need to wait for the inquiry led by the independent adviser on ministerial standards, Laurie Magnus, to do its work. Tory MPs parrot that in public, but in private they’ve made up their minds. “I don’t know a single Conservative MP who believes he can survive,” says one – and you can see why.
The available facts are damning enough. Zahawi paid a penalty to HM Revenue and Customs and, as the head of that body spelled out this week, that doesn’t happen for “innocent errors”. You have to have done something worse.
Zahawi’s defenders have taken comfort in the word “careless”, to suggest that the Tory chairman was guilty of a mere slip-up. But HMRC uses that word in a precise way. “‘Careless’ means a failure to take reasonable care in relation to your tax affairs,” advises the official HMRC guidance, adding: “Carelessness can be likened to the longstanding concept in general law of ‘negligence’.” Put like that, it hardly sounds like a credential for the person once in charge of the public finances: yet Zahawi served as chancellor of the exchequer.
Anyone who has filed a late tax return, or put a decimal point in the wrong place, might want to give Zahawi the benefit of the doubt. But it’s hard to do that when you recall that Zahawi did not admit his mistake straight away but, on the contrary, threatened to sue for libel those who first asked about it. For a politician to seek to intimidate those pursuing a legitimate inquiry should, in itself, be a disqualification for high office: a democracy relies on a free press, and a free press cannot function if those who exercise state power try to use their personal financial muscle to prevent scrutiny.
When asked about his own tax history on Friday, the current chancellor breezily offered that he didn’t think that “people at home are remotely interested in personal tax affairs”. I suspect the opposite is true: that they are highly interested in the tax affairs of those who determine how much everyone else pays in tax – and then spend that money. At the very least, they will want to know that the people making those decisions are paying what they themselves owe. And they will not be remotely tolerant of someone who issued menaces, branding as false and defamatory what was in fact true.
Sunak can be grateful to Zahawi for one thing, though. He has diverted attention away from Sharp, appointed by Boris Johnson’s government to chair the BBC a matter of weeks after he had helped secure an £800,000 loan to Johnson. If that sounds cosy, consider that Sharp, a good chum of the former PM, is now the subject of an inquiry headed by a man who, like Johnson, is an Old Etonian, right-of-centre journalist: namely William Shawcross, who serves as the commissioner for public appointments. Shawcross’s daughter happens to be head of the policy unit in Downing Street. And let’s not forget that the loan Sharp helped organise came from Johnson’s distant cousin. Snug, no?
This, too, is a case that can be settled before any inquiry reports. The key fact is already known: Sharp did a big favour for the PM, yet did not tell the panel that appointed him, even though he was required to declare anything that might even be perceived as a conflict of interest. Sharp says there was no such conflict, echoed by Johnson himself, who minted a Borisism specially for the occasion: “I can tell you that for 100% ding-dang sure.”
But these two cannot be the judge in their own case. Sharp simultaneously saw enough of a problem in acting as a loan-broker for the PM that he promised the cabinet secretary he would stay out of it from that point on – and yet not enough of a problem to mention it to the committee handing out a plum job. That silence is itself disqualifying.
Sunak will hope all this whistles past a public that has more immediate troubles on its mind. But that misses the point. Because what cuts through from all of this is the unbelievable sums of money involved. The minds of most Britons will boggle at a world where someone can be “careless” on a tax bill to the tune of £5m. Five million! Where someone in a handsomely paid job can still need a personal loan of £800,000 – and get it, from a cousin he hardly knows. When millions of Britons are counting the pounds just to get through the week, deciding whether to eat or stay warm, the notion that their rulers are dealing in telephone-number sums of cash will confirm that, truly, they live on different planets.
Allies of the PM insist that both the Zahawi and Sharp affairs are legacy scandals, leftovers from the Johnson era. But that hardly helps Sunak. First, because it advertises his own failure to make a break from that period, which would, admittedly, be difficult, given that he was there at Johnson’s side throughout. And second, because if the distance between regular voters and Tory politicians who enjoy enormous personal wealth is the question, then Sunak is hardly the answer. Mr and Mrs Sunak are the richest of the lot.
Still, this goes deeper than the usual terrain of scandal and optics. The smell of corruption that has filled the nostrils this week blends with a stronger, more lingering sense of corrosion emanating from this government. An overburdened NHS barely able to cope; a rail network that is struggling to limp along, in the north of England especially; trains, schools, hospitals all hobbled by strikes – it adds up to a shared and spreading feeling that the country is broken, that the public realm in particular has been corroded, not least by more than a decade of starved budgets.
In his Bloomberg speech on Friday, Jeremy Hunt suggested it was “columnists from both left and right” who had been spreading angst with all their declinist talk. But the decline is real.
And it is made vivid by the contrast with the fabulous wealth of those at the very top. In the 1950s, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith referred to “private affluence amid public squalor”. The phrase gained new currency in the 1990s, when Britons could see public services ailing even as the super-rich soared to ever greater heights. That’s the picture now, too. The private realm of Johnson and Sunak, Sharp and Zahawi – and many others – is so abundant, those who inhabit it can be careless about sums of money everyone else would regard as life-changing. Meanwhile, the country – the services that people rely on and which, in some way, define society itself – is descending into squalor. We cannot stomach the corruption, because we see the corrosion all around us.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
Join Jonathan Freedland for a Guardian Live online event on 2 February, when he will talk to Tania Branigan about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and how it has shaped modern China. Book here