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Good morning. Nadhim Zahawi survives, for now. Some thoughts on what Rishi Sunak is thinking and the risks of the prime minister’s approach in today’s note.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

The really hard way

Nadhim Zahawi is doomed. That was my assessment yesterday and so far, nothing has changed that. The only thing that has changed is that Rishi Sunak, in choosing to punt the question of Zahawi’s future over to his independent ethics adviser, has ensured that the Tory party chair’s final act will run on a bit. Newly appointed Laurie Magnus has been tasked with “getting to the bottom of everything” on whether he paid a penalty to HM Revenue & Customs to settle a tax dispute while he was chancellor. But as Dominic Grieve, former Conservative attorney-general, tells our Westminster team:

“Flapping around doesn’t work. Either Zahawi has a complete explanation, or he should go.”

So why is Rishi Sunak flapping around? Well, for two reasons: Zahawi is one of the government’s few remaining proven and competent administrators, and he is well-liked in the parliamentary party.

As I wrote yesterday, the questions surrounding Zahawi mean that he is incapable of doing the public-facing half of his job as Conservative party chair. But the backroom half — the difficult business of whipping CCHQ back into shape ahead the election — is an important job, and there isn’t an obvious candidate to replace Zahawi if he departs.

Added to that, because Conservative MPs like him, if Sunak were to act quickly and decisively and remove Zahawi, he’d risk triggering a backlash among his own MPs.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Sunak continues to make mistakes of his own. It was not a good idea to declare, as the prime minister did last week in the House of Commons that Zahawi had “addressed this matter in full” given that, demonstrably, Sunak had not sought adequate assurances that the matter had been addressed in full or that the story was over.

But we knew that Sunak had bad judgment already. That’s the story of Conservative party politics at the moment: Sunak is the best available candidate to lead the party, and his own standing among the public has helped to drag the Conservative party poll rating from the depths of “apocalyptically bad” to merely “utterly dreadful”. But that has come at a cost to his own ratings, which continue to slide.

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. The Tory party’s big hope is that he is a good enough painkiller to keep the party in contention until a combination of economic recovery and more effective public services banish the government’s real disease.

But the problem is that the more mistakes Sunak makes, the more likely it is that his own MPs will make life difficult for him. That outcome will further dent Sunak’s standing in the country, and with it, any hope his party may nurse of recovery this side of a general election.

Shameless self-promotion

My column this week looks at Anthony Bourdain’s principles in the context of public policy and criminal justice in particular, and the metrics I think should drive politicians’ goal-setting.

Now try this

I saw More Than Ever, a compelling story of a young woman contemplating the final weeks of her life. The film raises all manner of fascinating questions about relationships and end-of-life decisions and is really worth seeing.

Top stories today

  • Public borrowing jumps much more than forecast | UK public sector borrowing more than doubled in December, driven up by higher debt interest payments and the government’s measures to help households and businesses with soaring energy prices.

  • David Lammy promises end to Britain’s ‘isolated thinking’ | The next Labour government would be committed to rebuilding the UK’s global reputation and reconnecting with key allies after a period that has left British diplomats marginalised and pitied on the international stage, the shadow foreign secretary pledged.

  • ‘Putin’s chef’ and his lawyers | A Financial Times investigation has revealed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the paramilitary outfit Wagner Group, used leading corporate lawyers around the world to try to keep western governments at bay. In one case, lawyers were given special authorisation by the UK government to represent Prigozhin in a libel claim against a British journalist.

  • Hunt bids to bolster British steel | The UK is to propose a carbon border tax that would place a levy on imported steel as part of a £600mn support package to help Britain’s two biggest steelmakers invest in greener technologies and avert the loss of thousands of jobs.

Investigation ordered into Nadhim Zahawi tax evasion

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#Rishi #Sunak #political #equivalent #painkiller

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