How Nadhim Zahawi had just half an hour to save his job at make-or-break meeting
Nadhim Zahawi's allies claim he was given just 30 minutes to make his case before the independent ethics investigator looking into his tax affairs.
The Tory chairman was removed from his post after Sir Laurie Magnus concluded he had been guilty of a “serious breach” of the ministerial code.
He detailed at least seven occasions on which the code had been breached, accused Mr Zahawi of repeatedly failing to act with openness and honesty, and revealed talks with the HMRC about the tax bill had been going on since April 2021.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could have summarily dismissed Mr Zahawi last week, when political pressure was at its highest and it first emerged that he had paid a penalty for not paying the taxes he should have.
Instead he opted for due process - allowing an investigation to take place by the independent adviser on ministerial interests.
But on Sunday allies of Mr Zahawi raised questions about the process asking why the inquiry was so short, especially as it had been expected that it would run for three weeks.
Had the Prime Minister in fact ended up giving in to political pressure to get rid of him early, before Sir Laurie had been able to properly investigate the case?
Downing Street denies the charge, but Mr Zahawi’s allies asked why it was that he only had 30 minutes on Wednesday to put his case to the ethics adviser.
And why did the report not reflect the former chairman’s insistence that he told the top civil servant at the Treasury that he had paid a penalty when he was chancellor?
The allies believe that by acting at such speed, Mr Sunak may be guilty of having denied Mr Zahawi the chance to put his case.
One Tory MP, Robin Walker, told the BBC at lunchtime: “I do know that he personally feels very strongly that he should be able to clear his name in this.”
The Zahawi affair has indeed moved at remarkable speed. Less than two weeks ago, Mr Sunak told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions, that the Tory chairman "has already addressed this matter in full and there's nothing more that I can add".
Downing Street said Mr Sunak had full confidence in the Stratford-on-Avon MP, having taken him "at his word" over the matter.
But three days later Mr Zahawi corrected the record to say he had paid a penalty, and the Prime Minister was forced to act.
On Monday, he asked Sir Laurie to look at the case and the pair held their first - and now it turns out - their only face-to-face encounter in the Cabinet Office on Wednesday.
A day later, Mr Zahawi attended the Cabinet away day at the Prime Minister’s Chequers country retreat.
It is understood that Mr Zahawi played only a small role in the Chequers meeting, even though ministers discussed how the party could improve its electoral position - the main job of the Tory chairman.
Instead, the presentation was given to elections adviser Isaac Levido: a sign, perhaps, of the way Mr Zahawi was being sidelined.
All was then quiet until, according to Mr Zahawi’s allies, he was told late on Saturday that there would not, after all, be a second meeting with Sir Laurie.
Events then moved quickly, before the public announcement of the sacking at 9am on Sunday, just as Michael Gove was sitting down to do an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.
Downing Street said that Mr Sunak received Sir Laurie’s report a “couple of hours” before - refusing to put an exact time on when the email dropped.
They said the watchdog’s findings were “conclusive”, so the Prime Minister took a quick decision to sack Mr Zahawi.
“He took the view that there is no point in waiting, and transparency means it was right to publish the letter as soon as possible,” said a No 10 source.
Mr Sunak rang his chairman and told him he had been sacked. No details have been given on how the call went and how Mr Zahawi reacted.
The receipt of the report so early on a Sunday was particularly awkward for Mr Gove, the Levelling-Up Secretary, who was doing a round of broadcast interviews at the time.
Soon after 8am, Mr Gove was interviewed by Sky’s Sophy Ridge - an interview broadcast at 8.30am.
Although it is understood that Mr Gove knew something was happening in the Zahawi case, he did not know what - and in the interview he gave no indication that there was going to be any movement in the case.
Next he was up in front of Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC, with the interview set to start soon after 9am.
Just before the programme went on air, Downing Street emailed political journalists with the findings of the review and the Prime Minister’s letter to Mr Zahawi, relieving him of his role.
It meant that Mr Gove could finally answer questions on his colleague’s departure, after he had been put in the picture by No 10 shortly before the public announcement was made.
Investigation 'needed to establish facts'
Questioned about the timing, the Downing Street source said: “There is no good time to do these things. We don’t make decisions on when to announce things based on who is on TV, otherwise we wouldn’t ever announce anything.”
The source denied that Mr Sunak regretted not sacking his chairman last weekend when it emerged he had not told the whole truth about the penalty he had received.
“It might have been politically more convenient, but he wanted an investigation to establish the facts,” the source said.
“And indeed the investigation revealed some more facts that had not been made public. Everyone can say it was obvious last week, but the Prime Minister believes in proper process, and the need to ascertain the facts of the case.”
Around an hour after it had been announced that he had been sacked, Mr Zahawi put out his own letter, pledging support for Mr Sunak.
But there was no apology, and Mr Zahawi also took the extraordinary step of criticising the press for its role in his downfall.
He singled out a headline from the Independent, which said the “noose” was tightening around his neck - even though it was the Independent which had first reported questions surrounding his tax affairs.
Now allies of Mr Zahawi are questioning whether the report tells the whole story.
Claim Treasury already knew about penalty
They told the Spectator that he did tell Sir Tom Scholar, the then Treasury permanent secretary, about both the HMRC investigation and the penalty paid.
They also claim his ministerial register of interests was up to date in September, when Liz Truss appointed him chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster.
It is not known whether Sir Tom passed on what he had been told to the Cabinet Office, but Mr Zahawi is said to believe the Cabinet Office was in the picture when Mr Sunak made him Tory chairman.
Mr Zahawi’s allies say he had hoped to go through this in a second meeting with Sir Laurie next week - but the meeting was then cancelled. Downing Street said it did not know anything about a planned second meeting.
On Sunday most Tories seemed happy that Mr Sunak had acted quickly to get rid of his chairman, as soon as the report came to light.
But Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader, said: “I feel sorry for Nadhim, as he’s not dishonest. He feels hard done by. But perception is as important as reality, which is why the Prime Minister has regrettably had to do what he has done.”
But the reaction of Mr Zahawi’s allies shows that the scandal of the former chairman’s tax affairs may not die down so quickly.