Peter Walker Political correspondent
Sun, 22 January 2023 at 4:49 pm GMT
James Cleverly has said he does not know whether Nadhim Zahawi was investigated over his taxes when chancellor, or when Rishi Sunak knew about the issue, as the government attempted to defend the embattled Tory party chair.
In an interview with Sky News, Cleverly, the foreign secretary, also said he had no idea if Richard Sharp, the BBC chair, helped Boris Johnson arrange a guarantee on a loan of up to £800,000, weeks before the then PM recommended Sharp for the BBC role.
“I’m not an investigative journalist, and it’s not my functional role to investigate my colleagues’ tax affairs,” Cleverly responded under repeated questioning on the Sophy Ridge on Sunday show.
Asked in a later interview on BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg why he had not endeavoured to find out more before representing the government on a media round, Cleverly said he had been too busy doing his shopping after an overseas trip.
“I arrived back in the UK early on 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 said.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves said the two issues showed a government mired in sleaze. Reeves, the shadow chancellor, said: “You’ve got a prime minister who is too weak to do anything about it and it’s going to take an incoming Labour government to clean up this mess and drain the swamp – because frankly, it stinks.”
Zahawi is in grave political peril after conceding on Saturday he had reached a tax settlement with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) following an “error” over a controversial multimillion-pound shareholding in the polling company YouGov.
In a carefully worded statement, Zahawi appeared to confirm HMRC had carried out an investigation into his financial affairs while he was serving as chancellor last summer, saying the tax authority concluded he had made a “careless but not deliberate” error.
Hours later, the Sunday Times reported the apparent conflict of interest over Sharp’s appointment. Labour has called for an investigation into the events.
Cleverly said he did not know when asked if the Tory party chair, who attends cabinet, had paid a seven-figure penalty to HMRC and that it was investigating him when he was Johnson’s chancellor – and thus in overall charge of the nation’s tax affairs.
“The only information I know is this information that he’s put out in his statement,” Cleverly said.
“Now, you know, Nadhim was a very, very successful entrepreneur. As he said in his statement he had an outstanding settlement with the HMRC, which is now settled. I don’t have any more details.”
Asked about the penalty, first reported by the Guardian, Cleverly repeated: “I don’t know any more than is in his statement.”
He added: “People’s tax affairs are private matters. I know that as politicians we are, quite rightly, expected to have a higher level of disclosure than perhaps other people might do.
“Nadhim has issued a statement where he has admitted that he made a careless error, that this is now resolved with the HMRC.”
Quizzed about whether Zahawi was investigated when he was chancellor, from July to September last year, Cleverly said: “I don’t know any more detail about the timing, about the granularity, of what’s in his statement.”
Asked about Sunak’s knowledge of the affair, he said: “You know the answer to that question already, because I’ve already said I don’t know any more detail than is in his public statement.”
Regarding the BBC chair, Labour has written to the parliamentary commissioner for standards after the report that Sharp was involved in talk about financing Johnson in late 2020.
Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, was announced as the government’s choice for the BBC role in January 2021.
“I’ve not had a conversation with either of those parties about that,” Cleverly said, calling Sharp “an incredibly competent, experienced, thoughtful individual”. Cleverly added: “So as far as I can see, his appointment was made on those merits.”
It was “not at all unusual” to have senior BBC people with political affiliations, Cleverly added.
Asked why he had not sought to find out any information before appearing on the show, the foreign secretary said: “You’re the journalist, not me.”