(Bloomberg) -- Months out from a UK election and trailing in the polls, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is desperate to move past what’s been described as the biggest scandal in British legal history: the thousands of storekeepers falsely accused of stealing from the Post Office franchises they were running.

After a TV drama watched by millions piled pressure on the government to end the two-decade saga, Sunak returned to Parliament in January promising to quash hundreds of convictions and speed up compensation to sub-postmasters, as they are known. The immediate political furor appeared to dissipate.

But an ugly spat over those payments — and the accusation by a sacked former Post Office chairman that Sunak’s government wanted to delay them so it could “hobble” through to a UK election that polls say it is on course to lose — have reignited the political furor. Suddenly Sunak is at risk of being linked to a scandal that until now voters saw as largely predating his administration.

The government has “taken unprecedented steps” to ensure victims receive compensation “as swiftly as possible and in full,” Sunak told the House of Commons on Wednesday in his weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions, in response to repeated questions on the subject from opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.

The scandal was triggered by faults in a Fujitsu Ltd. computer system called Horizon that was used by UK post offices and inaccurately reported shortfalls in their accounts, resulting in private prosecutions of innocent branch managers for theft. Many were imprisoned and some victims committed suicide.

Some 3,500 people were caught up in the scandal, with many using their own money to settle the shortfalls reported by the accounting software.

The latest row was triggered when Henry Staunton, who had been fired weeks earlier as Post Office chairman by Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, said in an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper that she told him he was being pushed out because “someone’s got to take the rap.”

He also said a senior civil servant ordered him in January 2023 — a year before ITV’s drama Mr Bates vs. the Post Office drew broader public attention to the plight of the sub-postmasters — to stall compensation payments past the general election.

Sunak must call a UK vote by the end of January 2025, but has said he’s likely to do so in the second half of this year.

Badenoch hit back in typically abrasive fashion, telling the Commons on Monday that there was “no evidence whatsoever” that the compensation process was being dragged out. She accused Staunton of lying and criticized what she called a “blatant attempt to seek revenge following his dismissal.”

Staunton did not back down. The Times newspaper said Wednesday he had shared the contemporaneous note he made of his January 2023 meeting with Sarah Munby, then the Business Department’s permanent secretary. He said she told him not to “rip off the band aid” of the Post Office’s finances and that “now was not the time for dealing with long-term issues,” the paper said.

A government official responded by saying that the Post Office’s long-term financial issues are separate to the government-funded compensation programs, accusing Staunton of being confused or deliberately mixing up the issues.

The Business Department also published a letter from Munby to Badenoch dated Wednesday, in which the civil servant denied telling Staunton to stall the compensation payments, and repeating the official’s line that that funding was ring-fenced and separate to the Post Office’s financial position. 

Still, the very public spat is potentially damaging for the government and Sunak, because it plays into the wider narrative that successive administrations have not done enough or moved fast enough to help the sub-postmasters. 

“This war of words is a distraction,” James Arbuthnot, a former Conservative Member of Parliament and campaigner for the sub-postmasters who now sits in the House of Lords, told BBC Radio. “Settlement - and generous settlement - is what I believe the country wants for the sub-postmasters who have been treated so badly for decades. Let’s just pay the money and get on with it.”

Compounding the issue for Sunak is the fact the bill he promised on Jan. 10 this year, as MPs from across the House of Commons demanded action, to quash the convictions of the Post Office workers has yet to materialize. An update on the legislation, but not the bill itself, is expected to be published this week.

On Wednesday, Sunak repeatedly declined to repeating Badenoch’s claim that Staunton was lying, when pressed by Starmer. “I appreciate the business secretary has put the prime minister in a tricky position, but will he commit to investigating this matter properly?” the opposition leader asked.

Opposition politicians have also tried draw links with the Sunak government’s record on other compensation claims, including over the infected blood scandal. The government suffered a defeat in the Commons in December when it tried to block a Labour move to establish a compensation body for the victims. The scandal, which dates back to the 1970s, is the subject of a public inquiry. 

“The government act only when they are forced or shamed into doing so,” Labour MP Diana Johnson told Badenoch in the House of Commons on Monday.

(Updates with civil servant’s letter to Badenoch in 13th paragraph.)

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