Chris Phillips was dispatched this morning to defend the government on the country’s top broadcasters amid an emerging scandal around Nadim Zahavi’s taxes.
Zahawi, chancellor for a brief term in 2022, had to pay a multi-million pound fine in unpaid taxes to HMRC while leading the Treasury.
Zahavi was sole chancellor for the last two months in office of Boris Johnson, before becoming minister for equality and intergovernmental relations and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Liz Truss.
After a brief bid to run as Tory leader (and later PM), he was appointed as Tory party chairman by Sunak in October.
When reports emerged over the weekend that Zahavi had made a lump-sum payment to HMRC, he claimed that HMRC had agreed his mistake was “negligent and not intentional”.
While trying to play down the furore surrounding the Tory party chairman’s finances, Philip faltered several times.
Here’s a round-up of the most eye-opening comments the junior minister made during his media interaction.
1. He claims Sunak has acted ‘quickly and decisively’
Philip told Sky News’ Kamali Melbourne that PM Rishi Sunak is doing the right thing by ordering an investigation into the Zahavi tax saga by his independent ethics adviser.
Despite calling for this inquiry (which has been criticized for being rushed down the road), Philip said Sunak had acted “quickly and decisively”.
“He has done exactly what you would expect from someone who is committed to upholding standards in public life.”
However, others believe that Sunak should have fired Zahavi.
2. Believes the probe will ‘maintain public confidence’
Speaking to Nick Ferrari on LBC, Philip said the investigation into both Zahavi’s tax saga (and the claim that ex-PM Johnson propelled Richard Sharp to become BBC chairman after helping him secure an £800,000 loan) “Will maintain public confidence”.
But, a new survey from redfield and wilton Monday found Sunak now faces his worst approval rating since becoming PM in October.
2. Distortion of facts
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program host Mishaal Hussain, Philipps himself had a twist.
She asked: “Does the PM consider it acceptable for a senior member of government to be in a position to pay a fine to the tax man, because we know what happened?”
“Well, I think it’s important to establish the facts,” he replied.
“It’s a fact,” he hit back.
3. Zahavi owes £5m in back taxes
The government, like Zahawi, remained very tight-lipped on the exact figure – until Philippe stepped up to the broadcast round.
Hussein told Philip that Zahavi paid a “penalty” for his “negligence” in the “region of £5 million”.
The minister then replied: “I think it was the amount of tax, isn’t it?”
It appears that this is against the government line that the precise details surrounding Zahavi’s finances are a personal matter between him and HMRC.
4. Controversy over ‘negligence’
During the same interview, Philip said that “the word ‘negligent’ has been put into the public domain”, adding: “We don’t know exactly what it was that represented the negligence.”
Hussein pointed out that it was a word that Zahavi himself had put there, and it means “failure to take proper care”.
He asked: “How can a senior member of the government who until recently was running the treasury be careless, negligent with his tax matters?”
“You are inviting me to speculate,” he replied.
“I don’t know exactly what form that negligence took, nobody does, so we need this investigation,” he said.
5. What did Sunak know when he appointed Zahawi as Tory chairman?
During last week’s PMQs, the prime minister suggested Zahawi had already “addressed this matter thoroughly” – only for the Tory party chair to reveal more over the weekend.
Hussain asked Philip whether Sunak “was aware that when Zahawi was chancellor he had made a deal with the tax man?”
“At the time of the appointment, tax matters were depicted as being in order,” Philip replied.
Sky News’ Sam Coates Breakfast host Kamali also tweeted about a similar exchange between Melbourne and Phillip shortly before, when the minister said: “(Sunak’s) understanding was that there were no outstanding tax issues at the time.
“And my understanding is that he was not aware of the discussions that had taken place earlier.”
But, as Coates concluded, that “doesn’t prevent the craze from knowing a fair amount”.
6. Talking about Zahawi as if he was ‘a random stranger’
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain why Zahavi should not step down, Philip replied: “Because the Prime Minister has launched an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of it, because nobody really knows what happened.” Because tax matters are truly a private matter between an individual and HMRC.
He added that “there are real questions to be answered”.
However, host Susanna Reed said that Zahawi “knows what happened” and should have told Sunak or one of his predecessors about it.
“I don’t know what conversation took place on the occasions you are referring to.”
“You’re talking about her like she’s someone who’s just a random stranger,” she hit back. “This is someone who holds one of the most senior positions in your party and the second most senior job in Parliament.
“Why is it not already known, why are we investigating Zahavi’s tax affairs? Certainly it is his duty to do the right thing by paying the right amount of tax, and secondly, with his boss Be open and transparent about it?”
“I agree with both of those points, but I don’t sit here knowing exactly what happened, and neither do you, frankly, and neither does anyone else,” Philip said.
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