Keir Starmer links Zahawi controversy to Sunak family’s taxes at PMQs

Labour leader and SNP make reference to former non-domiciled status of PM’s wife at question time in Commons

Rishi Sunak faces mounting pressure to take decisive action against Nadhim Zahawi, as the focus on the Conservative party chair’s finances started to shift to the prime minister’s own tax situation.

After a bruising prime minister’s questions in which Keir Starmer labelled Sunak “hopelessly weak”, the PM’s press secretary initially refused to say whether Sunak had, like Zahawi, ever paid a tax penalty to HMRC, saying this was “confidential”.

Hours later, No 10 released a brief statement saying Sunak “has never paid a penalty to HMRC”.

Sunak is seen as particularly vulnerable over tax issues after it emerged last year that his wife, Akshata Murty, claimed non-domiciled status to avoid paying millions of pounds in tax on dividends from her family’s IT empire.

At PMQs, Sunak avoided a question from Starmer about Zahawi paying a tax penalty connected to the sale of shares in YouGov, the polling company he co-founded, while he was chancellor under Boris Johnson.

The Labour leader responded by openly taunting Sunak: “We all know why the prime minister was reluctant to ask his party chair questions about family finances and tax avoidance.”

The SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, joined the mockery with a question referencing Sunak’s tax history, as well as Zahawi’s, and allegations that Richard Sharp helped secure Johnson a loan before being appointed BBC chair.

“What advice would he have for individuals seeking to protect their personal finances?” Flynn asked. “Should they seek out a future chair of the BBC to help secure an £800,000 loan? Should they set up a trust in Gibraltar and hope that HMRC simply don’t notice? Or should they do as others have done, and simply apply for non-dom status?”

On Monday Sunak asked his ethics adviser, Laurie Magnus, to investigate the allegations against Zahawi.

On Wednesday, a series of senior Tory figures joined those calling for Zahawi to step aside, at least until Magnus has finished his inquiry, which it is thought could take little more than a week.

The veteran Tory backbencher Nigel Mills said even if Magnus exonerated Zahawi this would not be the end of the matter.

“I think the only way to resolve this is to make clear what the situation was that gave rise to a significant penalty,” the Amber Valley MP told the BBC. “If that can be explained we can all move on. If it can’t, then clearly his position won’t be tenable.”

Another MP, the trade minister Andrew Bowie, said that if Magnus found Zahawi had breached the ministerial code, Sunak would “of course sack him” – even though the prime minister’s press secretary said this was not necessarily the case.

Two party grandees, the peer Robert Hayward and former MP and cabinet minister David Gauke, also called on Zahawi to move aside, even temporarily. Gauke told the BBC: “It’s hard to see how this doesn’t ultimately end in his resignation.”

Sunak has repeatedly sought to distance himself from Zahawi’s tax affairs. On Wednesday he told MPs the tax settlement “occurred before I was prime minister”, and that he thus had not been told about it when he made Zahawi party chair and minister without portfolio, a cabinet post, in October.

Asked about the issue a week before at PMQs, Sunak gave assurances that Zahawi had “addressed the matter in full” – three days before Zahawi issued a statement effectively confirming the penalty to HMRC.

Challenged by Starmer on this, Sunak replied: “Since I commented on this matter last week, more information has come forward.”

Sunak pushed back against calls for him to sack his party chair, saying he believed in allowing due process to be followed rather than opting for “the politically expedient thing to do”.

But in a withering final question, Starmer said Sunak’s failure to act on Zahawi “shows how hopelessly weak he is”, adding: “He can’t even deal with tax avoiders in his own cabinet. Is he starting to wonder if this job is just too big for him?”


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tory crowd leaves early as Sunak and Starmer play out goalless draw at PMQs
City PowerPoint geek’s flickers of Boris-lite fail to ignite party more used to narcissistic fantasists

John Crace

26, Oct, 2022 @4:33 PM

Article image
Nadhim, pray, blub: Rishi Sunak looks lost and bewildered at PMQs
PM has no reply when Keir Starmer observes he is hopelessly weak and suggests the job is too big for him

John Crace

25, Jan, 2023 @5:51 PM

Article image
Strikes set aside as Starmer skewers Sunak on sleaze at PMQs | John Crace
The Labour leader’s attacks over Zahawi and Johnson left Rish! firmly outside his comfort zone

John Crace

01, Feb, 2023 @6:38 PM

Article image
Keir Starmer attacks Sunak over tax benefits for private schools
Labour leader asks PM why he handed his old school Winchester £6m in taxpayers’ money

Peter Walker and Pippa Crerar

30, Nov, 2022 @1:50 PM

Article image
Rishi Sunak too weak to stand up to ‘cartoon bully’ Williamson, says Starmer
At PMQs, Labour leader compares prime minister to a weak boss hiding behind bullies

Peter Walker Political correspondent

09, Nov, 2022 @2:33 PM

Article image
Rishi Sunak has never paid a penalty to HMRC, No 10 says, amid growing pressure over Nadhim Zahawi – as it happened
Downing Street releases statement after days of refusing to say whether or not PM ever paid a penalty to revenue body

Andrew Sparrow

25, Jan, 2023 @6:57 PM

Article image
Dominic Raab in peril as No 10 refuses to say if Sunak knew of complaints
Downing Street won’t answer whether PM was aware of possible complaints about Raab’s alleged bullying before appointing him

Peter Walker and Aletha Adu

01, Feb, 2023 @6:05 PM

Article image
‘Sir Softy’: Starmer insult makes it from Sun headline to PMQs
Rishi Sunak’s attempt to attack Labour leader on crime borrows from report about foreign-national criminals

Jim Waterson Media editor

20, Apr, 2023 @1:19 PM

Article image
Keir Starmer calls Rishi Sunak ‘blancmange’ after housing U-turn
PM accused of being unable to stand up to Tory MPs as promise to build 300,000 new houses a year dropped

Peter Walker Political correspondent

07, Dec, 2022 @2:48 PM

Article image
Starmer accuses Sunak at PMQs of making ‘grubby deal’ with Braverman
Labour leader says reappointment has jeopardised national security and exacerbated asylum crisis

Peter Walker Political correspondent

02, Nov, 2022 @1:24 PM