RISHI Sunak can’t take all the credit for the Conservative Party’s dire polling numbers. The line that marks the party’s chances of victory at the next General Election has been on a downward trajectory for some time now and it predates the current incumbent’s arrival in Number 10.

But he hasn’t exactly helped the situation. The short-term boost in support you would usually expect with the arrival of a new leader never materialised. He might be a slick operator, but everybody knows Sunak is, at best, a stand-in. He’s a placeholder prime minister. He is deemed competent enough to lead his party to defeat at the next election but nobody expects much more from during what is sure to be his first and only term.

He was brought in to steady the ship. Or, given the state of utter disrepair it is now in, it might be more accurate to say that he was brought in to frantically plug as many holes as he could to stop the thing meeting a watery death.

The “safe pair of hands” label is handed out too readily to certain politicians. It usually amounts to nothing more impressive than being in possession of a well-cut suit and a monied air of absolute confidence.

The legacy left to Sunak by his two immediate predecessors means he now governs from a position of fundamental weakness. His party continues to be consumed by weekly tales of sleaze and scandal and Sunak’s best – and only – hope is to try to keep the stench at bay while he hobbles along until 2025.

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Despite his assurances that his would be a government of integrity and transparency, Sunak has shown already that these are hollow promises. He doesn’t have the strength to act decisively and root out wrongdoers, because his party is in such a state of disarray that it is only ever one bad headline away from all-out warfare.

We saw spineless Sunak in action once again last week over the Nadhim Zahawi tax story. To recap – the Conservative Party chairman is facing mounting questions over his tax affairs, after

The Guardian revealed he agreed to pay a penalty to HMRC thought to total nearly £5 million. Penalties are applied if somebody doesn’t pay their tax on time and this payment is thought to be as a result of Zahawi’s failure to pay the appropriate capital gains tax on YouGov shares.

The former chancellor, who is now a Cabinet Office minister, said HMRC officers concluded that his whopping error was “careless and not deliberate”. How the other half lives, eh?

There is no doubt the fine levelled against Zahawi is a hefty one. But during the HMRC investigation, the former chancellor would have had access to the best financial and legal advice that money can buy.

The sanction that was ultimately imposed upon him is affordable to a man of his vast wealth. It is not disproportionate.

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It won’t force him to a food bank to feed his family and he won’t have to ration the electricity and gas in his home when the temperatures plummet. Contrast that with the experience of your average benefit claimant, who can have their entire weekly income taken away with the stroke of a pen for the crime of being late to an appointment.

Sunak is reportedly satisfied with Zahawi’s account of the tax muddle. His “nothing to see here” approach is not surprising. It is clear the Prime Minister has his own questions to answer, such as was he aware of any issues with Zahawi’s tax affairs when he appointed him party chairman in October.

In response to the story, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called on the Prime Minister to act, saying:

“Nadhim Zahawi’s story doesn’t add up. The position of the man who was until recently in charge of the UK’s tax system and who this Prime Minister appointed Conservative Party chair is now untenable. It’s time for Rishi Sunak to put his money where his mouth is and dismiss Nadhim Zahawi from his Cabinet.”

There is no doubt that this story will run and run, given the number of unanswered questions that remain. In the middle of a cost of living crisis, the public will take a dim view of a multi-millionaire forgetting to pay a seven-figure sum to the tax man.

And if Zahawi became aware that he was under investigation by HMRC while he was still the chancellor in charge of our tax system, then that would be a very grave matter indeed – perhaps so serious that it might even force Sunak to keep his promises and clean up his rotten party.