Raab under pressure over law he pledged would stop ‘baseless’ legal threats amid Zahawi row

Dominic Raab is under pressure to bring in laws he promised would stop baseless legal threats in the wake of the row over Nadhim Zahawi’s taxes.

The Independent revealed at the weekend that the former chancellor tried to gag this newspaper from revealing he was being investigated by the National Crime Agency and HMRC last year.

In March last year, Mr Raab promised to tackle so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) – high-cost legal claims to threaten and silence journalists and activists – that he warned were having a “chilling effect”.

Now, the Liberal Democrats have written to the justice secretary, and deputy prime minister, to ask where the planned legislation is.

In the letter, the party’s deputy leader Daisy Cooper wrote that she was “hugely concerned” by the reports in The Independent and other media about Mr Zahawi’s attempts to stop stories running with threats to sue.

“I hope you will agree that, were a cabinet minister to have appeared to threaten journalists or transparency campaigners, to deter them from publishing factually accurate information, that would be deeply troubling,” she said.

She added: “Almost a year on from your initial announcement, [your] legislation is still yet to be seen.”

Last night, Lord Evans, the chair of the committee on standards in public life, criticised the use of legal threats: “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.”

The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.

Mr Zahawi is under increasing pressure to quit after Rishi Sunak ordered an investigation into his conduct over his tax affairs by his ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus.

Earlier on Wednesday, more senior Conservative figures called on Mr Zahawi to resign his role as party chair amid the row.

They included influential peer Lord Hayward, who became the latest Tory to say Mr Zahawi should step aside, at least until the inquiry concludes. He warned the row could help “flatline” Tory popularity ahead of the local elections.

And David Gauke, the former Tory cabinet minister, told the Today programme that it was “hard to see how this doesn’t ultimately end in [Zahawi’s] resignation”.

He also said that if Mr Zahawi was still in post at 12pm, PMQs was going to be “very uncomfortable” for the prime minister.

Mr Zahawi failed to show for PMQs that saw Keir Starmer accuse Rishi Sunak of being “hopelessly weak” for failing to sack the former chancellor over the tax row.

The Labour leader said Mr Sunak was “overseeing chaos” and said it was “fairly obvious” that the former chancellor should step aside.

The prime minister rebuffed Mr Starmer’s questions on the saga, saying it occurred before he was prime minister.