Nadhim Zahawi wrongly told officials that he had not exchanged WhatsApp messages with David Cameron before it emerged that they had been deleted from his phone, The Times can disclose.
George Grylls, Billy Kenber www.thetimes.co.uk
The Conservative Party chairman falsely claimed that he had not exchanged messages with Cameron when the former prime minister was trying to secure government loans for Greensill Capital.
It later emerged that the pair had discussed Greensill when messages from the instant-messaging phone app were released to a select committee inquiry into the lobbying scandal.
The revelations will add to pressure on Zahawi, who is facing calls to resign after he admitted reaching a settlement with HM Revenue and Customs over unpaid tax. He faced a reported bill of more than £5 million which included a tax penalty and interest payments over unpaid capital gains tax on shares in YouGov, the polling company that he co-founded. The shares, which were issued when the company was founded in 2000, were held by an offshore trust controlled by his father.
In a statement on Saturday describing it as a “careless, not deliberate” error, Zahawi said that his representatives had discussed and settled the issue with HMRC over the summer.
The settlement was agreed during his time as chancellor last summer, when he had direct oversight over tax policy, it has emerged. Zahawi admitted that an agreement was reached before he joined Liz Truss’s short-lived cabinet in September. It indicates it was negotiated and confirmed in less than two months. He has not confirmed the size of the payment.
Zahawi is fighting for his political career over the issue, which he initially dismissed last year as “smears”. Labour said that it was “corrosive to public trust”, and Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that Zahawi should “get it all out now . . . and clear it up”. Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, called for the release of all correspondence with No 10 and for Rishi Sunak to “come clean on what he knew and when” about Zahawi’s tax affairs. It was reported by The Sun on Sunday that Zahawi had been blocked from receiving a knighthood recognising his work as vaccines minister because of his tax affairs.
Separately, the Times can reveal further details about Zahawi’s involvement in the Greensill lobbying scandal along with Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman facing questions about a loan guarantee that he allegedly gave to Boris Johnson.
During the pandemic Cameron contacted Zahawi, who at the time was a minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to ask for advice about approaching Sharp, a Tory donor and former banker who was advising Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor.
Cameron wrote: “Hi there. Well done with keeping going in the midst of all this. You’ve been v solid on the media. Lex Greensill — who I work with — says you are being v helpful over HMT and CBILS programme. Would it help if I pinged a message to Richard Sharp? I used to see him a bit in early leadership days but haven’t so much recently [. . .] All good wishes Dc.” There was no record of a reply from Zahawi. However, Cameron then sent a second message, saying: “Ta. Will do. Can you send me his contact details? Keep going! D.”
An investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office has established that Zahawi did not tell officials about the messages following a freedom of information request from The Times. When civil servants in his private office asked if “he had any messages on his private mobile phone from David Cameron”, Zahawi replied “that he did not,” the inquiry found.
When the existence of the messages later emerged, officials returned to question Zahawi again. He then admitted that he had messaged Cameron but that the texts had been deleted.
“It is our understanding that Mr Zahawi does not know how the WhatsApp messages from Mr Cameron came to be deleted from his mobile phone,” the inquiry found.
Zahawi was approached for comment.
There is a common Tory theme here. It is the practice of using words and phrases in ways which have multiple meanings and which the public will interpret one way but that way not an accurate reflection.
So, asked if “he had any messages on his private mobile phone from David Cameron”, Zahawi replied “that he did not” , giving the answer “that he did not,” is factually correct if they had been deleted.
We all know what the questioner meant, but he asked the wrong question and allowed Zahawi to mislead . The Tories are experts at misleading. A decent Speaker of the House might crack down on it but……….