I wanted to try and scotch what I think are three wrong takes on the whole Zahawi business. So a quick few words:
This was David vs Goliath, and David won!
No – Zahawi and his advisers made the tactical mistake of accidentally SLAPPing someone with plenty of financial resources, time, litigation experience, and plenty of contacts and friends in the legal, tax and media worlds. I’m sure Zahawi spent a small fortune on advisers – but my team would probably have cost ten times as much (had they charged me). Goliath accidentally started a fight with a bigger Goliath.
That hides the unpleasant truth that the basic SLAPP strategy remains sound. In reality, when Goliath picks on David, Goliath will almost always win. That’s how our libel laws work, and it’s a disgrace.
The lamestream media missed this story because they were useless/corrupt!
I only started looking at ministers because of the weird FOIA experience Jim Pickard (FT) and I had. in June/July 2022. I only started looking at Zahawi because of the astonishing Anna Issac (Independent) report that Zahawi’s finances had been investigated by the NCA and HMRC and the Michael Savage and Jon Ungoed-Thomas story (Guardian) soon after that a “red flag” had been raised by the Cabinet Office over Zahawi’s appointment.
Zahawi’s initial explanations were disproved thanks to investigative work from Billy Kenber and George Greenwood (Times).
Zahawi’s attempt to sue me was then covered in The Times and briefly became widely shared on social media.
But it then became a very hard story to cover. I continued to dig, sending correspondence to Zahawi’s lawyers and ultimately referring them to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. It was complicated, relied upon believing my rather technical claims, and was in the teeth of firm denials from Zahawi and legal threats from his lawyers.
There was also something of an overdose of political news at the time. So it had little attention in the press or, for that matter, in social media.
But still, some papers covered it, particularly the specialist legal press. Catrin Griffiths at The Lawyer was fearless. And Laith Al-Khalaf and Sabah Meddings wrote, and the Sunday Times devoted space, to a lengthy profile of me, focussing on Zahawi. The Economist had a very kind piece. Much harder for the broadcast media, given the “due impartiality” rules and the additional scrutiny they are under.
Probably Zahawi’s combination of litigation and stonewalling would have made the story die a slow, quiet death, but then Ashley Armstrong at The Sun blew the doors off with the scoop that, at the same time Zahawi was sending lawyer letters and denying everything, he was actually negotiating a secret settlement with HMRC. Followed a week later by Anna Issac (again! but now at the Guardian) with another scoop: Zahawi had paid 30% penalties.
After that, everyone was on the story – newspapers, broadcast media, BBC, ITV, Sky News etc. Acres of coverage, and large numbers of journalists delving further into Zahawi’s background.
So without the work of newspaper journalists, I wouldn’t have started looking at Zahawi, wouldn’t have been able to conclude that Zahawi was not telling the truth, wouldn’t have even suspected that a settlement had been made (with penalties!) and certainly the whole thing wouldn’t have reached a mass audience.
This isn’t a story of media failure – it’s a story of effective scrutiny from all corners of the media, in the teeth of denials and legal threats.
HMRC lied to Neidle and Pickard when they said no Minister was under enquiry
The timeline is still very unclear, but it appears that Zahawi was under investigation for more than a year prior to his appointment as Chancellor. However, it does not seem he was under enquiry – an enquiry being a formal status that lets HMRC freeze limitation periods and require delivery of documents. Very possibly HMRC had made a discovery assessment. Either way, it seems likely that HMRC’s response to me was accurate. I didn’t ask if a Minister was under “investigation” because there is no formal legal concept of an “investigation” and HMRC would, rightly, have said that it was therefore too imprecise a question for them to answer.
This website has benefited from some amazingly insightful comments, some of which have materially advanced our work. Comments are open, but we are really looking for comments which advance the debate – e.g. by specific criticisms, additions, or comments on the article (particularly technical tax comments, or comments from people with practical experience in the area). I love reading emails thanking us for our work, but I will delete those when they’re comments – just so people can clearly see the more technical comments. I will also delete comments which are political in nature