When I broke the story of Nadhim Zahawi’s scandalous tax affairs, last July, he should have been sacked in six days. I never for a moment thought he would cling on for nearly six months.
Virtually all the information needed to conclude he was unfit to sit round the cabinet table was contained in two stories I wrote for The Independent on 6 July and 9 July.
I disclosed he was being investigated for tax fraud, not just by the HMRC – but that the National Crime Agency and the Serious Fraud Office were involved as well. The investigation by the NCA – often referred to as “Britain’s FBI” – was conducted by its International Corruption Unit.
Short of putting a flashing red light over Zahawi’s head, it is hard to know what we could have done to show the situation was serious. Even worse, all this was known inside government at the highest level – including Downing St – long before last July. But nothing was done.
When I approached Zahawi, he tried to bully his way out of it with a battery of bogus denials and wild legal threats. But The Independent would not be gagged. Satisfied that the story was based on reliable information from trusted sources, it published them. It has taken all this time to show that every word was true.
Zahawi was never going to get away with it forever. But it is only appropriate to praise financial sleuth Dan Neidle and Anna Isaac of The Guardian for their work in this matter.
Alerted by, in his words, our “extraordinary” reports, in July Neidle diligently established how much tax Zahawi owed. More recently, Isaac established he had paid a £1m penalty. Both have been generous enough publicly to state the crucial role The Independent played in exposing the affair in the first place.
Speaking on the BBC Radio ‘Media Show’ on Wednesday, Mr Neidle said the first he knew of the Zahawi scandal was when he saw “an amazing story in the Independent (on July 6) claiming Zahawi had been under investigation by the NCA, HMRC and SFO - Zahawi denied it.”
That was when he started his own investigation, said Mr Neidle.
The Zahawi saga has proved the old adage in political journalism: that the cover-up often causes more damage than the initial “crime”. So it has proved for Rishi Sunak.
As we also reported last July, Boris Johnson was informed that police and tax chiefs were investigating Zahawi. With his own lamentable personal record in such matters, and Zahawi a long-time ally, Johnson was never going to act. But if he had, it would never have landed in Rishi Sunak’s No 10 intray.
Equally, if Zahawi had done the decent – and honest – thing and told Sunak he had effectively been fined £1m by the HMRC when he was chancellor and in charge of tax, Sunak would never have dreamed of making him Tory chair. But none of that happened.
As a result, Sunak’s claim on entering No 10 that he would put an end to the sleaze of the Johnson era rings hollow. If Johnson, Sunak and others had paid attention to our two stories last July, it would never have come to this.
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