'I acted pretty decisively', says UK's Sunak after sacking party chair
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Monday he had acted "pretty decisively" by sacking Conservative Party chair Nadhim Zahawi over his personal tax affairs, moving to quell criticism that he had acted too slowly.
In the latest scandal to involve one of his ministers and just months after he entered Downing Street promising to lead with "integrity, professionalism and accountability", Sunak has protested his innocence about Zahawi's tax affairs.
He said he had moved quickly to sack Zahawi, who was briefly finance minister last year under former prime minister Boris Johnson, when his independent adviser ruled that the party chair had broken the rules guiding the behaviour of ministers.
"What I did as soon as I knew about the situation was appoint somebody independent, looked at it, got the advice and then acted pretty decisively to move on because that's what I think all of you deserve, from me and from government," he said during a question and answer session in the north of England.
"I will take whatever steps are necessary to restore the integrity back into politics."
The opposition Labour Party has described Sunak as being too weak to deal with his party, which ousted two prime ministers last year over scandal and economic chaos.
Sunak now faces a challenge to appoint a new chair to the Conservative Party, a position made ever more important before an election widely expected next year.
With the opposition Labour Party way ahead in the opinion polls, Conservative lawmakers are already jockeying for position to take a role which could be crucial to the party's future.
Several lawmakers said they expected Sunak to look for a candidate he could not only trust but also had a clean record in parliament, while others were keen on well-established names who could command the support of party members.
Zahawi's ousting over his non-disclosure of an investigation into his tax affairs and a resulting fine is yet another setback to Sunak's attempts to reset government.
Late last year, Gavin Williamson resigned from Sunak's cabinet team of top ministers over bullying allegations, while Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is under investigation on bullying charges.
"What I've done is follow a process, which is the right process. Integrity is really important to me," Sunak said.
(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Piper, additional reporting by Sarah Young; editing by William James and Arun Koyyur)