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Sleaze scandals could leave you facing same fate as Sir John Major, Rishi Sunak is warned

Sir John Major giving a speech last year - PA
Sir John Major giving a speech last year - PA

Rishi Sunak has been warned that his government risks being “sunk by Tory sleaze” in the same way as Sir John Major’s premiership.

Mr Sunak was criticised on Sunday for his “weak” handling of the Nadhim Zahawi affair – the second departure of a Cabinet minister during his three months in Downing Street – amid claims he could have sacked him sooner.

In a letter confirming his decision to sack the Tory chairman, the Prime Minister reiterated his pledge to lead a Government characterised by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.

But there are fears history will repeat itself and Mr Sunak could meet the same political fate as Sir John, whose ''back to basics’' messaging was soon undermined by a string of sleaze rows involving high-profile Tory ministers and MPs.

Sir John's time in office was plagued by scandals including ''cash-for-questions'', which saw two Conservative MPs suspended from the Commons after they were reported to have accepted cheques for £1,000 for agreeing to ask a question in Parliament.

A number of MPs were also exposed for their extramarital affairs, with three ministers brought down by sex scandals in 1997 alone.

Mr Sunak has assumed the leadership of a Tory Party whose public image remains tainted by a string of controversies throughout the past year involving some of its MPs.

Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Questions last week - UK Parliament
Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Questions last week - UK Parliament

Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for 18 months over child sex offences, while the resignation of Chris Pincher over claims that he groped two men at an event would prove to be the final straw for Boris Johnson's government.

During his time as chancellor, Mr Sunak admitted he had held a green card while at the Treasury, while Akshata Murthy, his wife, previously held non-dom tax status.

No sooner had he become Prime Minister than Sir Gavin Williamson, a minister without portfolio, resigned from his Cabinet amid allegations of bullying.

George Osborne, the former chancellor, told Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show that Mr Sunak was “being pulled down by a series of scandals which do not directly involve him… kinds of hangovers of the Johnson era”.

Mr Osborne said: “He needs to do something pretty quickly. To my mind the defining thing of his political career was his decision to resign as Chancellor from the Boris Johnson government over sleaze, over integrity. But he’s never really talked about that..

“I think he’ll have learnt lessons from the Zahawi affair that you need to act more quickly than he did.  I think he’s going to try and define himself now as the sort of sleaze buster. But… [it’s] unbelievably hard.”

Michael Portillo, the former Tory minister, told GB News the Prime Minister had seemed “weak” by not sacking Mr Zahawi as soon as it emerged he had paid a penalty to HMRC during his time as chancellor.

And Craig Oliver, a former director of politics and communications at No 10, told Times Radio: “The problem, I think, for the Prime Minister was that he felt that if he sacked him immediately, people would feel, well, [Zahawi] hadn't been given the chance.

“Now the problem is, I think, that that's a sign that he's quite weak at the moment, he doesn't feel able to stand up and say ‘look, this is clearly a problem for us’... It's a sign I think of quite how weak he's feeling with his own backbenchers.”

One Tory MP who has been supportive of Mr Sunak urged him to give the party a “clearer sense of what the end goal is” and set out his vision for “Britain in five or 10 years’ time” to calm nerves in his own ranks.

A senior backbencher said: “He needs to be more decisive and more upfront. He should have made his own judgement about whether it was defensible with Nadhim. The way he handled it gave us the worst of all possible outcomes.”

They also urged Mr Sunak to learn from the negative headlines of the past fortnight and act “swiftly” to resolve the scandal surrounding Dominic Raab, who is under investigation over his alleged behaviour towards as many as two dozen civil servants.

“I can’t see how dragging it out for many more weeks is going to help very much,” they said. There’s no substitute for prime ministerial judgement... either say ‘yes, you’ve been wronged’, or tell him that it is all getting a bit much and ask him to stand down for a bit.”

It comes as The Telegraph can reveal that a former Cabinet minister has become the first Tory MP to privately call for Mr Raab to resign.

“Can he stay on? The answer is no,” they said. “He’s damaging the Prime Minister – and no minister should ever do that.”