Rishi Sunak being fined for not wearing a seatbelt is the least of his problems

In recent weeks there have been a series of political car crashes for Sunak and the Conservative party

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Northern School of Art, in Hartlepool, on January 19. AP
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A few years ago, I was due to travel to report on unrest in a country notorious for lawlessness. I was told the biggest threat was “K&R ” – kidnap and ransom. I won’t name the country because despite all its problems I loved reporting there and survived unscathed. But before my trip, it was suggested that for my safety I should take a short defensive driving course. Foreigners could be identified by their hire cars and I might find myself receiving unwanted attention from street criminals.

The defensive driving course was mostly a lecture on kidnapping techniques and how to avoid them. The rules were never – ever – to be stuck in traffic or at least to try to have an escape route, a way to turn the car around quickly. (I suppose that is possible, but far from easy.) The threat was of being forced to stop and then being “kettled” between the car in front reversing to block your own car and the vehicle behind jamming in so you couldn’t move.

I was alarmed by all this but I am delighted to say, nothing bad happened to me in that lovely country, only the kindness of strangers. The reason I am mentioning this is that the most interesting part of the defensive driving course came when the instructor asked me a deceptively simple question. When your car has an accident with another car, how many accidents take place?

“Er, … one?” I suggested. The answer is three, the instructor said. First, your car hits the other car. Second, your body hits the steering wheel, if there’s no airbag. Third, the internal organs in your body hit your ribs, and that – he said – is the bit most likely to kill you.

In car crashes, deaths often come from severe internal bleeding, he claimed. The moral of the story, he insisted, was that you must wear a seat belt. It gives you a much better chance of surviving a car crash.

All this wise advice came to mind when I saw that beleaguered British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was filmed for a social media video while sitting in the back seat of a car and not wearing a seat belt. Police issued a Fixed Penalty Notice and Mr Sunak paid a modest fine.

But all that was the least of his problems in a month that has seen a series of political car crashes for Mr Sunak and his Conservative party. The first political car crash came when the chairman of the Conservative party, Nadhim Zahawi – a friend of Mr Sunak who attends British Cabinet meetings and who was briefly chancellor of the exchequer – admitted having underpaid his taxes.

Nadhim Zahawi, UK ministers without portfolio and chairman of the Conservative Party, arrives for a weekly meeting of cabinet ministers at 10 Downing Street in London, on January 10. Bloomberg

He ended up paying what’s been reported as £5 million ($6 million), including a significant penalty. Mr Zahawi – like Mr Sunak – is obviously extremely rich. Our former prime minister Boris Johnson is apparently not so financially secure. We know this because the other big Conservative party political car crash in the past few days came when The Sunday Times revealed that the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, helped to arrange a guarantee on a loan of up to £800,000 for Mr Johnson, who was at the time prime minister.

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The problem is now one of Rishi Sunak’s judgment

A few weeks later, Mr Johnson recommended Mr Sharp for the BBC job. Why Mr Johnson so desperately needed £800,000 is not clear. Could he really be so hopeless with his own money yet be in charge of spending taxpayers’ cash? But the idea that a major benefactor to the prime minister should – purely coincidentally – some weeks later become chairman of the BBC has resulted in a major political row.

The editor-in-chief of the BBC is the director general. Mr Sharp is not directly involved in editorial decisions. Nevertheless he is an extremely powerful figure, and arranging a loan for someone who then gives you a very high-profile job will take some explaining.

The events of the past week reminded me of the defensive driving instructor lecturing me on car crashes not just because of the seat belts story but because in all these political events the truly dangerous crash is not what happens on the outside. It’s the impression that on the inside Britain is governed by a tiny clique of people who know each other and may do favours for each other in ways not open to the other 68 million citizens.

It would appear that at the highest levels, the Conservative party exists in a cosy insider world of private chats between politicians, the tax authorities and their mates. And whatever happens next, the problem is now one of Mr Sunak’s judgment. It turns out that Mr Sharp was once Mr Sunak’s boss at the financial services company Goldman Sachs. And so, even if you do not believe that anyone did anything wrong, the damage is to the internal organs of the Conservative party and to the government.

The impression is that they appear to behave like a group of careless drivers, immune from outside pressures, speeding unwisely until the car crashes start happening. My guess is that many more car crashes lie ahead. Political seat belts will not save careless drivers.

Published: January 25, 2023, 7:00 AM