Hunt does not rule out receiving tax penalty amid calls for Zahawi to go

Hunt does not rule out receiving tax penalty amid calls for Zahawi to go

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt twice declined to say whether he has paid a tax penalty, as ministers’ financial affairs come under scrutiny amid the furore surrounding Nadhim Zahawi.

Mr Hunt insisted on Friday that journalists would not find anything “interesting” in his tax affairs and claimed the public are not “remotely interested” in the subject.

He was responding to questions amid growing calls for Mr Zahawi to step aside as Tory party chairman while under investigation for settling a multimillion-pound tax dispute while chancellor.

Mr Zahawi has authorised HM Revenue and Customs to discuss his settlement – estimated to be worth £4.8 million and include a penalty – with the investigation ordered by Rishi Sunak.

Pressure on ministers only grew after HMRC boss Jim Harra told MPs there are “no penalties for innocent errors in your tax affairs”.

Under questioning after a Bloomberg speech, Mr Hunt said: “I’m not going to talk about my personal tax affairs, but I don’t think there’s anything you’d find interesting to write about if I can put it that way.”

He declined to answer when pressed again and added: “By the way, I don’t think people at home are remotely interested in personal tax affairs, they are interested in these things,” gesturing towards the Government’s five priorities.

Senior Tory MP Sir Jake Berry has said it is “unsustainable” for Mr Zahawi to remain in power, arguing it was necessary to step aside while under investigation so the public can have faith in the process.

The former minister, who was Mr Zahawi’s direct predecessor as party chairman, told BBC Question Time: “Even though he is a friend of mine, I’m not going to allow that from a view I’ve put forward consistently.

Conservative Party Conference 2022
Senior Tory MP Sir Jake Berry has said it is “unsustainable” for Mr Zahawi to remain in position (Aaron Chown/PA)

“The Government needs to find a mechanism for ministers and MPs who are under investigation in this way to step aside, to clear their name, and then to come back into government if that is appropriate.

“I think from Nadhim, great individual that he is, that would be the right thing to do now.

“I do think it’s unsustainable for a minister to stay in this post while this investigation goes on.”

Mr Sunak has refused calls from Labour and other senior Tories including Caroline Nokes to remove Mr Zahawi’s post either permanently or temporarily.

On Thursday, a source close to Mr Zahawi said he would permit HMRC to share details of his case with ministerial standards adviser Sir Laurie Magnus.

The revelation came after Mr Harra told the Public Accounts Committee the department could only co-operate with the investigation if given approval by Mr Zahawi.

“There are no penalties for innocent errors in your tax affairs,” the HMRC chief executive added.

The Guardian reported that Mr Zahawi’s penalty stood at 30% of the settlement, which he dealt with while chancellor.

Mr Sunak maintained his position on Thursday that he will “await the findings” of the investigation into whether Mr Zahawi broke the ministerial code.

Speaking during a Cabinet away day at Chequers, the Prime Minister told broadcasters: “I’m not going to pre-judge the outcome of the investigation, it’s important that the independent adviser is able to do his work.

“That’s what he’s currently doing, that’s what I’ve asked him to do and I’ll await the findings of that investigation.”

A week ago, Mr Sunak told Prime Minister’s Questions that Mr Zahawi had addressed the fiasco “in full”.

But he went on to launch an investigation by Sir Laurie, his independent adviser on ministers’ interests, admitting there were “questions that need answering” after the penalty was revealed.

Mr Sunak insisted that “no issues were raised with me” when he appointed Mr Zahawi to his current role, amid questions over his political judgment.