Nadhim Zahawi: Floundering Tory minister says 'I don't know' 18 times in car crash interview

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04: Chris Philp MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, speaks to a delegate on the third day of the Conservative Party conference at Birmingham ICC on October 04, 2022 in Birmingham, England. This year the Conservative Party Conference will be looking at
Policing minister Chris Philp refused to be drawn on whether Nadhim Zahawi should quit. (Getty Images) (Ian Forsyth via Getty Images)

An interview with a Tory minister has been described as a "car crash" after he repeatedly tried to avoid answering questions about the scandal swirling around Nadhim Zahawi's tax affairs.

On Tuesday, policing minister Chris Philp was grilled on two controversies rocking the Conservative Party: the uncomfortable questions facing Zahawi and the links of Boris Johnson to the appointment of the current BBC chairman.

Last week it emerged that Zahawi, who is currently a cabinet minister and Tory Party chairman, paid a penalty and unpaid tax to HMRC last summer when he was chancellor due to "careless" errors on his tax returns. It has been widely reported the sum of money was in the region of £5m.

At the weekend, it was claimed current BBC chairman Richard Sharp was involved in helping Johnson secure a £800,000 loan just weeks before the former prime minister appointed him to the role in 2021.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday morning, Philp was questioned by host Mishal Husain on both issues.

Read more: Nadhim Zahawi urged to stand aside as Tory party chairman during probe into his tax affairs

Asked whether Rishi Sunak believed it was appropriate for "a senior member of the government to be in the position of having paid a penalty to the taxman" Philp said it was important to "establish the facts".

However, the presenter reminded him "that is a fact"; Zahawi has paid HMRC a combined £5m in unpaid tax and penalties.

"He himself has said that the tax man told him the error he made was 'careless', not 'deliberate'," said Husain.

She added: "Mr Zahawi himself has said his error was careless.

"Does the Prime Minister, therefore, think it is acceptable for a senior member of the government to be negligent in their tax affairs?"

British Minister without Portfolio Nadhim Zahawi looks on outside the Conservative Party's headquarters in London, Britain January 23, 2023. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Tory party chairman and cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi is believed to have paid a combined £5m in unpaid tax and penalties to HMRC while chancellor last year. (Reuters) (Henry Nicholls / reuters)

According to the government's website, being "careless" with tax affairs "can be likened to the longstanding concept in general law of 'negligence'".

Seemingly flustered, Philp repeated his claim that it was important to have an "investigation" into what happened with Zahawi's tax affairs accused the host of speculating on the issue.

"This word careless, that's been put into the public domain... we don't know exactly what it was the carelessness represents..." said Philp.

He added: "I don't know precisely what format carelessness took - neither do you, nobody does - and that's why we need the investigation to find out exactly what happened."

On the issue of the appointment of the BBC chairman, Philp also struggled to provide any clarity, conceding he didn't know "the details of exactly what happened".

Read more: Nadhim Zahawi 'Will Be Gone By Prime Minister's Questions', Tory MPs Believe

Overall, the minister said "I don't know" or "we don't know" at least 18 times during the awkward interview.

Former Conservative MP, Anna Soubry, described Philp's interview as "a car crash".

"Nad[h]im Zahawi is toast," she said.

"The utterly dire Chris Philp is the government minister out on the airwaves this morning trying to defend him. Latest car crash playing out now on Today."

It comes after Caroline Noakes became the first Tory MP to publicly call for Zahawi's resignation on Thursday evening.

“There are countless examples of good, competent cabinet colleagues who’ve got themselves in a mess, who have resigned quickly and come back, really in some instances just a few months later," said Noakes.

“In order to get this cleared up Nadhim should stand aside and let the investigation run its course.”

Watch: Tax info was 'put into public voluntarily by Nadhim Zahawi'