When Rishi Sunak became British prime minister last year, he entered Downing Street promising to restore good government after a period of extraordinary turbulence.
But, as he marked his 100 days in office last week, his period in power has been anything but calm. It’s an important milestone for a leader when judgments about his performance start to form.
Tory MPs gave him the job in reaction to the chaos generated by his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
He said he would restore confidence in the government’s fiscal competence after Liz Truss’s short-lived time in office saw the pound tumbling while government borrowing costs soared and, he said, he would rebuild trust in the government’s ethical integrity after the questionable moral antics of the Johnson premiership.
“This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level,” Sunak declared in his first speech outside Number 10.
“Trust is earned and I will earn yours.”
Those comments are now facing intense scrutiny after Sunak was forced to sack Nadhim Zahawi — a key ally who served as chairman of the ruling Conservative Party, after an investigation into his tax affairs found that he had breached the ministerial code.
Sunak had little choice other than to sack Zahawi following publication of the report written by Sir Laurie Magnus, Sunak’s ethics advisor, which found that Zahawi, who was born in Baghdad to Kurdish parents, had committed seven breaches of the ministerial code.
But for a prime minister who has built his reputation on bringing a degree of probity to British public life, his failure to act sooner has attracted fierce criticism, with opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer questioning whether Sunak has the necessary qualities to run the country.
This is because rumours have been swirling around Westminster for several weeks that Zahawi had been forced to pay a tax fine despite serving a brief sting as Chancellor of the Exchequer, placing him in charge of Britain’s finances.
Zahawi, finally admitted that he was obliged to pay a penalty, believed to be in excess of £1m, as part of a £5m settlement with HMRC for unpaid tax for what he called a “careless error”. The head of the HMRC has since commented that there are no penalties for “innocent errors”.
As a consequence, all the progress Sunak and his team have made to restoring some semblance of stability to Britain’s finances following the chaos surrounding last year’s short-lived Truss administration has now been undone.