UK prime minister fires party chairman over tax bill allegations

Pressure had been mounting on Nadhim Zahawi amid claims he settled millions in unpaid taxes when in charge of Treasury; PM Sunak calls it a ‘serious breach’ of ministerial code

Nadhim Zahawi, Britain's Minister without Portfolio leaves after attending a cabinet meeting in Downing Street in London, January 17, 2023. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
Nadhim Zahawi, Britain's Minister without Portfolio leaves after attending a cabinet meeting in Downing Street in London, January 17, 2023. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fired the chairman of his ruling Conservative Party Sunday over a “serious breach” of the ministerial code.

Pressure had been building on Nadhim Zahawi amid allegations he settled a multimillion-dollar unpaid tax bill while he was in charge of the country’s Treasury.

In a letter to Zahawi, Sunak wrote he had been forced to act after promising at the start of his tenure that his government “would have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”

There was no immediate comment from Zahawi.

Zahawi, the founder of polling website YouGov, had acknowledged a dispute with tax authorities, but argued his error was “careless and not deliberate.”

The British media reported the settlement came to almost 5 million pounds ($6.2 million).

Zahawi headed the UK Treasury from July to September 2022 in the final months of Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister. Sunak said the decision had come at the end of an investigation into the party chairman’s financial dealings by the government’s independent standards adviser.

The report by Laurie Magnus found Zahawi had shown “insufficient regard” for the ministerial code and the required standards “to be honest, open and an exemplary leader through his own behavior” in public life.

The investigation into his affairs by HMRC, the UK’s tax office, centered around the sale of some £27 million ($33.4 million) in shares in YouGov.

The probe began in April 2021, but Zahawi did not declare it when he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer more than a year later.

The Magnus report found there should have been an understanding from the outset the matter was serious. It said this was not reflected in public statements given by Zahawi, until he confirmed on January 21 of this year that a settlement had been reached.

Zahawi in a statement Sunday said it had been a privilege to serve in successive governments and told the prime minister he could be assured of his continuing support.

He made no reference to the ethics investigation, but said he was concerned over the conduct of some parts of the media in recent weeks, adding that some reporting did not reflect “legitimate scrutiny of public officials.”

The 55-year-old had previously worked as vaccines minister in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, followed by a nine-month stint as education minister.

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