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Minister unable to answer questions about Nadhim Zahawi tax row as he was 'doing some shopping'

James Cleverly struggled to answer questions about the Nadhim Zahawi tax row. (BBC)
James Cleverly struggled to answer questions about the Nadhim Zahawi tax row. (BBC)

One of the top members of Rishi Sunak’s government has said he is unable to answer questions about the Nadhim Zahawi tax row because he went shopping this weekend.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly, appearing on the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show, struggled to answer a series of questions about Tory party chairman – and former chancellor – Zahawi.

He then blamed his busy week – and the fact he was “doing some shopping on Saturday” – for his struggles.

Zahawi is under pressure after admitting he paid a settlement to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) following a “careless and not deliberate” tax error related to a shareholding in YouGov, the polling firm he co-founded.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 13:  British Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs James Cleverly (L) and Minister without Portfolio, Nadhim Zahawi (R) leave after attending the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, United Kingdom on December 13, 2022. (Photo by Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
James Cleverly and Nadhim Zahawi pictured in Downing Street last month. (Getty Images)

He released a statement on Saturday to “address some of the confusion about my finances” after it was reported he paid HMRC a seven-figure sum to end a dispute. But the statement raised further questions, including whether Zahawi negotiated the settlement when he was chancellor and in charge of the country’s taxation.

Cleverly, representing the government on Sunday, twice said he didn’t know any more detail about the row than what Zahawi put out in his statement.

It prompted a broadside from presenter Kuenssberg, who told him: “This story, this issue, has been going on for a long time. It’s been a huge matter of political discussion in the last few days.

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“You knew you were coming on to do this interview this morning and you’ve told us you don’t know whether or not he paid a penalty, you don’t know whether he sorted out his tax affairs while he was the chancellor when he was actually the taxman’s boss – which I think many people would think is a blatant conflict of interest – and you don’t know whether he discussed it with the prime minister.

“Can I ask you, is that because you don’t want to know because it’s uncomfortable to talk about this, or if it’s because Nadhim Zahawi is keeping this to himself? Our viewers might wonder how on earth are you here talking for the government about this this morning when you don’t have answers to what are really straightforward questions?”

Watch: Zahawi admits he paid settlement after HMRC disagreed with allocation of shares

It prompted the bizarre response from Cleverly, who said: “I spent the whole of last week in the United States of America and in Canada.

“I arrived back in the UK early on Friday morning, on an overnight flight, before then going on to engage with my constituents through Friday and having a bit of a rest and doing some shopping on Saturday.”

He added: “The decision as to how much detail to put in the public domain is rightly one for Nadhim himself.”

Claims about Zahawi’s tax affairs began emerging when he was appointed chancellor by Boris Johnson last summer, with reports suggesting Cabinet Office officials had alerted the then-PM to the HMRC dispute.

Zahawi, who now attends Rishi Sunak’s cabinet, did not disclose in his statement the size of the settlement he paid to HMRC, though it was reported to be an estimated £4.8m including a 30% penalty.

Opposition parties have demanded an independent probe as well as the publication of all of Zahawi’s correspondence with HMRC.

Amid calls for Zahawi's sacking, Cleverly, who also appeared on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, was asked if his colleague will survive in his role until Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

He said: “What else am I going to say other than yes, because he’s a very, very effective minister.”