Britain’s ruling Conservative Party suffers from an “addiction to sleaze and scandal”, opposition leader Keir Starmer has said in a heated exchange with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as pressure on his government intensifies.
Rattling off a list of the Tories’ failings during their time in government, Mr Starmer sought to paint a picture of a party tearing itself apart over misconduct ― with a weak leader at its helm.
More than 100 days into his tenure in 10 Downing Street, Mr Sunak is being dogged by questions over his handling of former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi's tax affair, the inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and the Boris Johnson loan row.
Despite efforts to push forward his domestic agenda, including pledges to lower inflation, stop illegal immigration and slash healthcare waiting lists, the Prime Minister’s position is blighted by issues both new and old.
Polls suggest his popularity has also been hit by the issues.
The seemingly never-ending record of sagas is inflicting “huge damage” on Britain, Mr Starmer said, while taking on Mr Sunak during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
“After 13 years in power, trying to blame the Labour Party for his failure to sort out the strikes is rank pathetic,” Mr Starmer told MPs. “The Tory Party’s addiction to sleaze and scandal has done huge damage to this country and the cost to the public keeps adding up.”
Mr Zahawi was sacked as chairman of the Conservative Party on Sunday after an independent inquiry found he had breached ministerial rules over his failure to declare a probe into his tax affairs by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
A replacement for Mr Zahawi has yet to be announced.
In the days before the findings of the inquiry were published, Mr Sunak resisted calls to suspend Mr Zahawi from his post. Following his sacking, the Prime Minister has refused to bow to calls to remove the party whip from the politician.
The inquiry into bullying claims against Mr Raab, who is also the Justice Secretary, is also proving to be a thorn in the Prime Minister's side.
Mr Sunak was told about Mr Raab’s “unacceptable behaviour” last summer before he appointed the deputy prime minister to his Cabinet role in October, according to a source quoted by Sky News. The insider claimed in the months before he became Prime Minister that Mr Sunak was notified of the questionable conduct but was not “directly told” about specific issues.
Mr Sunak’s spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister was not aware of any formal complaints at the time of appointing Dominic Raab.” She declined to say whether the Prime Minister knew of informal complaints against Mr Raab before handing him a top role in his team.
The Labour leader went on to attack the government’s record on crime, saying it resulted a “justice system letting murderers walk the street”, and he said the economy was “shrinking quicker” than Mr Sunak’s leadership.
The International Monetary Fund has tipped the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) to contract by 0.6 per cent in 2023, and expects it to be the only major economy to shrink this year.
Mr Sunak was also lambasted over reports his former boss Mr Johnson could get hundreds of thousands of pounds from taxpayers to foot his legal bill in the Partygate investigation.
“I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw that [Mr Sunak’s] government is expecting taxpayers to pay the legal fees for the member for Uxbridge [Mr Johnson] defending himself over his lockdown rule-breaking,” Mr Starmer said.
“A quarter of a million pounds. Surely even this Prime Minister can put his foot down, stand up to his old boss and tell him he made the mess, he can pick up the bill?”
Mr Sunak skirted around the question, instead accusing his opponent of cowering in the face of Labour-supporting unions who are conducting strikes across multiple sectors.
“He can’t stand up to his union bosses, he can’t stand up for Britain’s schoolchildren today and he can’t stand up for the women in his party,” the Prime Minister said.
After listing his administration’s priorities, he added: “While he can’t even figure out what he believes in, we’ll keep delivering for Britain.”
No 10 said former ministers are supported with costs if faced with legal action relating to their work during their time in office.