Integrity, Professionalism and Accountability

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Island on January 29, 2023. Just after my article was published, Nadhim Zahawi was sacked. I claim no credit for this.

When Rishi Sunak  became prime minister of the UK, he stood outside  Number 10  and promised, as the anti-Johnson, the not-Truss, to deliver, “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at every level. As Paul Waugh put it in the i-paper: “Every inch the former Head Boy he was at school, Sunak from the outset staked his premiership on being someone who followed the rules rather than broke them. The other clear promise was that he was a fixer of problems, not a creator of them.” How is that working out?

The W Word

When Boris Johnson was shambling towards being an ex-prime minister, many surmised that opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer would be sorry to see him go. People pontificated that it was easy for Starmer to look good, competent and, well, normal, when up against Johnson’s buffoonery. When Johnson was finally ousted, there were suggestions that Starmer would be done for if the Conservative party chose any halfway competent leader. In his leadership campaign,  Sunak claimed that he would be able to outshine Starmer in a general election, whereas Liz Truss would not. We did not have to wait for a general election for Truss to demonstrate that she was a disastrous choice. She lasted a mere 44 days in office – long enough to wreck the UK economy.

If Starmer  can make allegations of weakness that stick, voters will think that, if the prime minister cannot control his own ministers, how can he show he has a firm grip on the government of the country? This is probably a conscious echo of  Tony Blair saying about John Major in 1995: “I lead my party, he follows his”. Starmer has broken the taboo of the Corbyn years and started talking about the successes and competence of the previous Labour government, led by the Iraq-invading Bush-poodle Tony Blair, compared to the shambolic Conservative government of 2023, now into its omnishambles thirteenth year, with its second prime minister chosen by the party not the electorate.


At prime minister’s questions (PMQs) on Wednesday January 25, 2023, Starmer’s first question was about a report by the chief inspector of probation into the murder of Zara Aleena. Sunak came prepared with the usual blah. Lessons will be learnt, deepest sympathy for the family, terrible tragedy, talented young woman’s life cut short,  blah-de-blah. In my days as a civil servant I churned out that kind of crap by the yard. Sunak is not much of a politician but goes in for a lot of politician’s hot air and bloviation, while accusing Starmer of playing politics. Starmer is an accomplished lawyer who received his knighthood for his service as Director of Public Prosecutions and he was not going to let the prime minister get away with his feeble response.

Starmer quoted Zara’s family, who said that ministers had blood on their hands. Jordan McSweeney sexually assaulted and murdered Zara nine days after being released on licence from prison. He had 28 previous convictions for 69 separate offences going back 17 years. Starmer quoted the report’s criticisms of  systemic failures in the probation system. The report described staff shortages and judged that privatisation had led to inefficiency and  evasion of responsibility by ministers. The name of Christopher Grayling was not mentioned but I will call him to account.

Failing Grayling Part Two

Focusing on a vital public service which is on  its knees after 13 years of Tory rule is a line that can be used in many contexts. Stuff isn’t working, there are excessive workloads and staff shortages throughout the UK, demonstrably caused by Tory policies of spending cuts, outsourcing to cronies who don’t know how to do the job,  and ending the free movement of labour.

Nadhim Zahawi

Starmer  moved on to the subject of tax dodging. This is a sensitive area for Sunak as he was embarrassed when he was chancellor by revelations about his wife’s financial arrangements. It has been estimated that she avoided paying £ 2.1 million a year in UK taxes (perfectly legally of course, but then, the laws were overseen by her husband).

Nadhim Zahawi briefly held that post, the one where he was responsible for bringing in taxes to support the welfare of the nation. It now seems that, at that time, he was under investigation for avoiding taxes. The Guardian estimated that the total amount he paid after being caught out was £5 million  – the amount owing was estimated to be £3.7 million, to which a 30% penalty was applied, as well as interest. It seems Zahawi has been lying about his offshore investments.

Starmer stuck the knife in and twisted it. “His failure to sack him, when the whole country can see what’s going on shows how desperately weak he is.” Starmer  snarled,  “we all know why” the PM was reluctant to ask Zahawi questions about his tax affairs.  Starmer said that someone not paying taxes should  not be in charge of taxes. He referred to family tax dodging, clearly a dig at Sunak and his wife. The prime minister’s tax returns are due to be published soon. The Sunday Times estimates that the prime minister and his wife are worth £ 730 million. How can he empathise with people who cannot pay their fuel bills? How can he understand why nurses and rail workers are striking for better pay?


Starmer took the opportunity on 25 January  to reprise his attacks from January 18. Starmer had asked then: “It’s three minutes past 12. If somebody phones 999 now because they have chest pains and fear it might be a heart attack, when would the prime minister expect an ambulance to arrive?” The government was, Sunak replied, “rapidly implementing measures to improve the delivery of ambulance times”. Optimistic Ukridgean promises about what might happen in the  future, ignoring what actually happened in the real world in the past 13 years.  As Sunak would not answer the straight question, Starmer did. In Peterborough, a patient calling at 12.03 would not get an ambulance until 14.10, in Northampton 14.20 and Plymouth 14.40. Starmer concluded by telling the story of Stephanie, aged 26, who died while waiting for an ambulance.

Sunak uses private health care.

Sunak’s only response was  to blame the unions representing nurses and paramedics taking industrial action against a government which will not negotiate with them on their claim for a living wage. The Labour leader said: “So that’s his answer to Stephanie’s family: deflect, blame others, never take responsibility. If he won’t answer any questions, will he at least apologise for the lethal chaos under his watch?”

Johnson Hangover

Sunak is a teetotaler but managed to get himself fined for attending one of the drunken parties that contributed to Johnson’s downfall. Sunak  is suffering a hangover because he retained too many tainted figures from Johnson’s soiled regime. He brought in damagingly compromised characters to try to heal the rifts in the party. There is not a great deal of talent from which Sunak can choose.

There was surprise when Johnson gave Gavin Williamson a knighthood. The former fireplace salesman and adulterer was generally seen as a comic figure. He is often referred to as Private Pike, after the cretinous Home Guard in the TV series Dad’s Army. He told the Russians to just go away, They didn’t. I see him more as Frank Spencer the hapless and disaster-prone husband and father in Some Mothers Do  ‘Ave ‘Em.  Now a brutal side has been revealed with a number of allegations of bullying. The Guardian alleged that, while serving as defence secretary, he told a senior Ministry of Defence official to “slit your throat” and “jump out of a window”.

Anne Milton, the former deputy chief whip,  made damning claims about how Sir Gavin behaved when he was her boss. He kept a tarantula in a jar in his office and a bull whip on his desk. He threatened blackmail about MPs’ sex lives and used financial inducements to establish control. He boasted of “owning’ an MP who had got into financial difficulty. More recently, there were leaked messages in which he used foul language to deride Liz Truss’s chief whip, Wendy Morton, over a failure to invite him to the Queen’s funeral

He was sacked as Defence Secretary by Theresa May for leaking national secrets. He was sacked as education secretary by Boris Johnson for his  calamitous mismanagement of the exams season during the pandemic. People were baffled when Sunak brought him back as Minister without Portfolio – some said, Minister without a Clue. It seems that Sunak had the vain hope that Williamson would use his bullying skills to bring discipline to the warring Tory factions.

Another alleged bully is deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab. Marina Hyde often fantasises about Raab being a serial killer having a lock-up with a freezer full of bodies. We have during interviews seen how a vein throbs in his forehead as he tries to control his anger.  Unlike Prince Andrew, he  sweats a lot when under pressure and sometimes the words won’t come out as he tries to suppress his rage. As I write, I am reading a report that 24 civil servants, some in senior roles have made complaints that Raab  “belittled and demeaned them” and was “very rude and aggressive” on many occasions each day. Some sources say there are more than 30 complaints, some people claiming to have been physically sick before meetings, regularly in tears and, in more than one case, feeling suicidal. The complaints cover his time as Brexit secretary as well as foreign secretary and justice secretary. The inquiry report by Adam Tolley KC , which is expected soon, could result in Raab being sacked.

“Cruella” Braverman is the daughter of immigrants but her main aim in life is to stop immigration. There have been many doubts about her abilities and there were allegations that she has faked her CV. There was some surprise when Liz Truss appointed her home secretary but she was sacked over allegations that she leaked government secrets through her private email. There was even greater surprise when Sunak reappointed her as home secretary despite her serious breach of the ministerial code.

When Will the Pain Be Killed?

Stephen Bush wrote in the Financial Times, “Sunak is essentially the political equivalent of a painkiller. He is easing some of the symptoms of the Conservative party’s electoral malaise, but he becomes less effective at doing that from overuse.” It is small comfort, and not a good omen for a general election, that Sunak  is seen merely the best available leader the Tories have for the foreseeable future.  The gene pool was much diminished by Johnson’s purges to get his oven-ready Brexit done-deal. According to Bush, Sunak “has helped to drag the Conservative party poll rating from the depths of ‘apocalyptically bad’ to merely ‘utterly dreadful’.“ That is progress.

At PMQs, Starmer kept repeating he word “weak” and finished by asking  Sunak if the job was too big for him. This was seen by some as a non-PC reference to Sunak’s diminutive physical stature. Sunak did not answer – he rarely does. Weak, filthy rich, geeky and lacking in empathy. He is not of our world, and the voters will eventually notice that he is bit, how shall I put it, weird. They have not been given the opportunity to voice their opinion as the Tories continue to shuffle their no-hopers without electoral consent. Democracy UK-style.