Chris Philp was sent to defend for the government on the country’s top broadcasters this morning amid the emerging scandal around Nadhim Zahawi’s taxes.
Zahawi, the chancellor for a brief period in 2022, had to pay a multi-million pound fine to HMRC in unpaid taxes during his time leading the Treasury.
Zahawi was only chancellor for the last two months of Boris Johnson’s time in office, before going on to become equalities and intergovernmental relations minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Liz Truss.
After a brief bid to run as the Tory leader (and subsequently PM), he was then hired as Tory Party chair by Sunak in October.
When reports over the weekend revealed that Zahawi had paid a lump sum to HMRC, he claimed that HMRC had agreed his mistake was “careless and not deliberate”.
While trying to play down the furore around the Tory Party chair’s finances, Philp tripped up several times.
Here’s a round-up of the most eye-opening comments he made while the junior minister was speaking to the media.
1. He claimed Sunak has acted ‘quickly and decisively’
Philp told Sky News’ Kamali Melbourne that PM Rishi Sunak was doing the right thing by ordering an investigation into Zahawi’s tax saga from his independent ethics adviser.
Despite calling for this investigation (which has been criticised for kicking the can down the road), Philp said Sunak has acted “quickly and decisively”.
“He’s done exactly what you would expect someone to do who is committed to maintaining standards in public life.”
However, others believe Sunak should have just fired Zahawi.
2. Believes investigations will ‘maintain public confidence’
Speaking to Nick Ferrari on LBC, Philp said the investigations into both Zahawi’s tax saga (and the claims that ex-PM Johnson pushed for Richard Sharp to become BBC chair after helping him to secure a £800,000 loan) would “maintain public confidence”.
But, a new poll from Redfield & Wilton found on Monday that Sunak is now facing the worst approval rating since he became PM in October.
2. Getting the facts muddled
Philp got himself in a twist when speaking to BBC Radio 4′s Today programme host Mishal Husain.
She asked: “Does the PM consider it acceptable for a senior member of the government to be in the position of having paid a penalty to the tax man, because that we do know happened?”
“Well, I think it’s important to establish the facts,” he replied.
“That is a fact,” she hit back.
3. Revealing Zahawi owed £5m in tax
We don’t know the amount Zahawi owed exactly, but reports from both the BBC and the Guardian suggesting it was in the ballpark of £5million in total, including the unpaid tax and the 30% penalty.
The government, like Zahawi, had remained pretty tight-lipped over the exact figure – until Philp stepped up to the broadcast rounds that is.
Husain pointed out to Philp that Zahawi paid “a penalty” for his “carelessness”, in the “region of £5 million”.
The minister then replied: “I think that was the amount of tax owed, wasn’t it?”
This appears to go against the government line that the exact details around Zahawi’s finances are very much a personal matter between himself and HMRC.
4. Row over ‘carelessness’
During the same interview, Philp said that “this word ‘careless’ has been been put into the public domain”, adding: “We don’t know exactly what it was that carelessness represents.”
Husain pointed out that this was a word Zahawi himself put out there, and that means a “failure to take reasonable care”.
She asked: “How can a senior member of the government who not long ago was running the treasury be careless with their tax affairs, be negligent?”
“You’re inviting me to speculate,” he replied.
“I don’t know precisely what form that carelessness took, nobody does, that’s why we need this investigation,” he added.
5. What did Sunak know when he appointed Zahawi as Tory chair?
During last week’s PMQs, the prime minister suggested that Zahawi had already “addressed this matter in full” – only for further details about the Tory Party chair to emerge over the weekend.
Husain asked Philp if Sunak was “aware that while Zahawi was the chancellor he had reached a settlement with the tax man?”
“At the point of the appointment, the tax affairs were represented as being in order,” Philp replied.
Sky News’ Sam Coates also tweeted about a similar exchange between Breakfast host Kamali Melbourne and Philp from shortly before, when the minister said: ”[Sunak’s] understanding was there were no outstanding tax issues at that time.
“And my understanding is that he wasn’t aware of the discussions that had taken place previously.”
But, as Coates concluded, that this “doesn’t preclude Sunak knowing a fair amount”.
6. Talking about Zahawi as if he’s ‘a random stranger’
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain why Zahawi shouldn’t quit, Philp replied: “Because the prime minister has launched an independent investigation to get to the bottom of this, because nobody really knows exactly what happens, because tax affairs are rightly a private matter between an individual and HMRC.”
He said there are “real questions to be answered”.
However, host Susanna Reid pointed out that Zahawi “knows what happened” and should have told either Sunak or one of his predecessors about it.
“I don’t know what conversations happened on the occasions you’re mentioning.”
“You’re talking about him as though he’s someone who is a random stranger,” she hit back. “This is someone who holds one of the most senior positions in your party and has held the second most senior job in parliament.
“Why isn’t this known already, why are we having to have an inquiry into Zahawi’s tax affairs? Surely it’s incumbent upon him to do the right thing by paying the right amount of tax in the first place, and secondly, be open and transparent about that with his boss?”
“I agree to both of those points, but I don’t know sitting here precisely what happened, and nor do you frankly, and nor does anyone,” Philp maintained.