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Nadhim Zahawi let public down with efforts to push back on tax inquiries, standards chief says

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 24/01/2023 Dominic Penna
Nadhim Zahawi's actions did not live up to the Nolan Principles, says Lord Evans - Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images © Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images Nadhim Zahawi's actions did not live up to the Nolan Principles, says Lord Evans - Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

The chairman of the committee on standards in public life has criticised Nadhim Zahawi’s use of lawyers in an attempt to push back on inquiries into his tax affairs.

Lord Evans, the former boss of MI5, said in an interview that Mr Zahawi’s behaviour went against the Nolan Principles, which include integrity and leadership.

It comes as former Cabinet ministers and senior Tory figures broke ranks to call on their chairman to quit after he admitted paying a penalty over “errors” in his tax affairs, which were deemed “careless but not deliberate” by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

It has emerged that Mr Zahawi threatened The Independent newspaper three times with legal action when asked for his response to inquiries by the National Crime Agency and HMRC.

Lawyers acting on his behalf have also sent letters to Dan Neidle, a former Magic Circle lawyer and Labour activist who has spent months on his own investigations into the former chancellor.

Asked on Tuesday about the row, Lord Evans told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “If you’re trying to close down a legitimate public debate, I don’t think that lives up to the standards Lord Nolan laid down and which the Government has committed itself to.

“Accountability [and] openness are things which the Government says that it wants to be characterising its own behaviour, so that I think speaks for itself.

“The sort of attempts, apparent legal attempts to suppress this story … I don’t think that does live up to the sort of standards that the public would rightly expect.”

Allies of Mr Zahawi, whose spokesman declined to comment on the peer’s remarks, have always insisted there was no deliberate wrongdoing on his part

He has said he will stay in his post during an investigation by Sir Laurie Magnus, the Prime Minister’s independent ethics adviser.

On Tuesday Caroline Nokes, the women and equalities committee chairman, became the first backbencher in Mr Zahawi’s own party to publicly say he should resign - telling the BBC he should “stand aside until this matter is all cleared up”.

The Telegraph has talked to a number of senior backbenchers including ones who, like Mr Zahawi, have helped run Conservative Campaign Headquarters in recent years.

One former vice-chairman, who has also served in the Cabinet, said: “My thoughts are that something doesn’t seem right. I just think it might be better if he stepped aside until the issue is resolved.”

Another added: “What an absolute bloody car crash. It’s very damaging to have all this stuff in the headlines. Can he stay in post? I’m afraid I think he has to go.”

There are also fears the ongoing row over Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs, which is into its 10th day, will come as a “gift” to Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Downing Street said Sir Laurie’s investigation should be carried out “swiftly” but that there was no timeline or date by which it should be completed - meaning it could potentially run for months.

Asked if Rishi Sunak is confident Mr Zahawi has always told the truth to him about his taxes, his official spokesman said: “The investigation looks at any potential breaches of the Ministerial Code.

“As you'll know, I won't get into being prescriptive about how the advice goes about ascertaining that.”

Several former Cabinet ministers have told The Telegraph the time has come for Mr Zahawi to stand down.

One described the situation as “terminal” and another said Mr Zahawi had “been fatally wounded by this”, adding: “It looks like very sadly it will be a question of when, not if.”

Another senior backbencher said: “It is a gift to Labour. It just takes us back to sleazy, incredibly rich … People just laugh at the £27 million figure. 

“Nadhim is so gifted, and of integrity in the way that he governs, but this undermines a lot of his good work.

But one MP who is supportive of Mr Zahawi took aim at a “witch-hunt culture”, saying: “Politics isn’t fair, and those who want to pursue him won’t give up.”

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