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Rishi Sunak’s cabinet heads to Chequers as PM under siege to sack Nadhim Zahawi

Good morning. Rishi Sunak us hosting a cabinet away day at his country house, Chequers, where the embattled Nadhim Zahawi is expected to attend, in an outing that has been dubbed a “hideaway day” by opposition parties.

The Cabinet’s away day comes after days of damaging headlines about Zahawi’s tax affairs, with the Conservative party chairman subject to an ethics probe. Sunak ordered an investigation by Sir Laurie Magnus, his independent adviser on ministers’ interests, into whether Zahawi broke ministerial rules over the estimated £4.8m bill he settled with HMRC while he was chancellor.

The result of that investigation could take just 10 days, according to work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride. Speaking on ITV’s Peston programme on Wednesday, he said:

I can’t be drawn on an arrangement of which I don’t know all the details. But the good news is that we will, in around it sounds like ten days’ time or thereabouts, hear from the ethics adviser, who will report to the prime minister, the prime minister will then have the facts and be able to make exactly those judgments.

There is growing pressure on Sunak from senior Tories and the opposition to take decisive action against Zahawi irrespective of an ongoing inquiry.

Sunak will sack Zahawi if he is judged to have “fallen foul” of the ministerial code, trade minister Andrew Bowie told the BBC last night. Lord Barwell, a former Downing Street chief of staff to Theresa May, said the lack of public defence being offered for Zahawi suggested his role could be in jeopardy.

The meeting also comes after my colleague Pippa Crerar’s report that Dominic Raab is facing a much broader bullying investigation than originally anticipated with at least 24 civil servants involved in formal complaints against him.

Downing Street offered few details about what today’s Chequers away day would entail, but said Cabinet ministers would be “focused on the five priority areas” that Sunak spoke about in his new year’s speech.

The Lib Dems accused the PM and his cabinet of effectively dodging scrutiny as the country grapples with a range of crises. Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said:

While Rishi Sunak and his scandal-hit ministers hold a ‘hideaway’ day at Chequers, the rest of the country is suffering from this endless Conservative chaos. The NHS is in crisis and people are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, but Conservative ministers are too busy fighting to save their own careers. Sunak’s promise to govern with integrity now lies in tatters. He can’t even tackle the multiple crises facing his Cabinet, let alone the huge challenges facing the country.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am. NHS England will publish its weekly situation report for hospitals, plus figures for GP appointments and GP/NHS workforce.

9.30am. Office for National Statistics to publish its figures on economic activity and social change in the UK.

9.30am. In the Commons: Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions; Questions to the Church Commissioners, House of Commons Commission, Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, Public Accounts Commission and Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission; Business Statement and questions to the Leader of the House; General debate on Holocaust Memorial Day; Adjournment debate on the Midland Metro extension.

11am. In the Lords: Introduction of Lord Sewell of Sanderstead; Oral questions on supporting UK manufacturing after Brexit, proposed reforms to the Mental Health Act, and meeting the needs of autistic pupils in mainstream secondary schools; Debate on the level of resilience of the armed forces; Short debate on the Skidmore net zero review; Debate on the life chances and educational prospects of vulnerable teenagers.

12pm. Rishi Sunak’s cabinet meets for an away day at the prime minister’s country house, Chequers.

12pm. First Minister’s Questions will take place at Holyrood.

2pm. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will publish its weekly Covid-19 and flu surveillance report.

3.30pm. Read-out of the cabinet meeting.

Hello everyone. I’m Léonie Chao-Fong and I’ll be covering Andrew Sparrow on the blog today and tomorrow. Feel free to get in touch on Twitter or via email.

Key events

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HMRC chief executive says ‘no penalties for innocent errors’ in people’s tax affairs

Jim Harra, the chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs, has said there are “no penalties for innocent errors” in an individual’s tax affairs.

Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee, Harra was careful to point out that he was not discussing any particular individual. He said:

Carelessness is a concept in tax law. It can be relevant to how many back years that we can assess, can be relevant to whether someone is liable to a penalty and if so, what penalty they will be liable to for an error in their tax affairs. There are no penalties for innocent errors in your tax affairs. So if you take reasonable care, but nevertheless make a mistake, whilst you will be liable for the tax and for interest if it’s paid late, you would not be liable for a penalty. But if your error was as a result of carelessness, then legislation says that a penalty could apply in those circumstances.

It’s worth pointing out that Nadhim Zahawi did pay a penalty imposed by HMRC as part of an estimated £5m tax bill.

Harra told MPs that officials would help “in any way we possibly can” with the ethics inquiry into Zahawi’s tax affairs.

UK climate minister received donations from fuel and aviation companies

Jamie Grierson

The UK climate minister – who recently stated not all fossil fuels were the “spawn of the devil” – received campaign donations from one of the largest fuel distributors in the UK as well as an aviation consultant and recruiter, it has emerged.

Graham Stuart, Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness, was appointed climate minister by Rishi Sunak in September. He has responsibility for net zero strategy and low carbon generation, and is the Commons lead for clean heat.

Stuart has confounded some during his short tenure as climate minister with claims that a fresh round of oil and gas licensing are “good for the environment” and more recently stating not all fossil fuels should be “viewed as the spawn of the devil”.

Graham Stuart, appointed climate minister in September, has said he had ‘time for climate change sceptics’.
Graham Stuart, appointed climate minister in September, has said he had ‘time for climate change sceptics’. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Now it has emerged that, in 2019, Stuart received a £10,000 donation towards his re-election campaign from JR Rix & Sons, a Hull-based business primarily involved in the distribution and sale of fuel, including heating oil, diesel and petrol.

Among JR Rix & Sons’ group of companies is Rix Petroleum, as well as Rix Heating, which specialises in the supply and maintenance of oil tanks and boilers, Rix Shipping, which operates a fleet of oil tankers, and Maritime Bunkering, one of the largest suppliers of marine fuels on the Humber estuary.

Read the full story here:

Pamela Duncan

The number of ambulance patients waiting a half an hour or more to be handed over to A&E staff has fallen to one-in-five patients, the lowest proportion this winter.

One-in-fifteen (6.6%) of patients waited more than an hour in the back of an ambulance or on a hospital corridor to be handed over to A&E staff in the week to 22 January compared to one-in-four in the last week of December.

Ambulance crews – who, along with nurses, will take part in a coordinated strike with nurses on 6 February – have expressed frustration at long handover delays.

Pressures have eased across the NHS towards the end of January with a fall in the number of beds required for flu patients and people.

There was also an easing in the number of beds needed for those who, although medically fit for discharge, cannot leave hospital due to a lack of social care places. More than 14,000 beds were required for these “delayed discharges” in recent weeks but fell back to 13,566 in the week ending 22 January.

Peter Walker

Peter Walker

The Home Office is preparing to introduce a long-expected ban on the sale or possession of nitrous oxide, one of the most popular recreational drugs among young people, as part of a wider crackdown on antisocial behaviour.

The plan is being pushed by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, according to officials, and would lead to people found with laughing gas, which is usually inhaled from balloons filled through small metal cylinders, facing prosecution.

Discarded nitrous oxide cylinders are a ubiquitous sight on high streets and at festivals, with almost one in 10 16- to 24-year-olds reporting having taking the drug in 2019-20.

While supplying nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects is already illegal under 2016 legislation, the gas has legitimate uses, primarily for the production of whipped cream or for freezing food, and it is widely available online.

The planned change to the law, first reported by the Times, would permit the gas to be possessed for legitimate reasons – it is also used as pain relief, for example in childbirth – but would ban recreational use and supply, most likely bracketing it under the same classification as cannabis.

Read the full story here:

At least 24 civil servants involved in complaints against Dominic Raab, say sources

Pippa Crerar

Pippa Crerar

Dominic Raab is facing a much broader bullying investigation than originally anticipated with at least 24 civil servants involved in formal complaints against him, the Guardian understands.

Government insiders believe the depth of the inquiry and severity of some of the claims means the deputy prime minister will struggle to survive in post, and it throws further doubt on Rishi Sunak’s judgment for having him in such a senior position.

The prime minister is already under siege on a separate front over the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative party chair, with growing pressure on him from senior Tories and the opposition to take decisive action irrespective of an ongoing inquiry.

Downing Street confirmed in December that the Raab was facing eight formal complaints over alleged bullying, six of them from his first stint at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), one from when he was foreign secretary and one from when he ran the Brexit department.

Raab has vowed to ‘thoroughly rebut and refute’ the formal complaints.
Raab has vowed to ‘thoroughly rebut and refute’ the formal complaints. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

However, sources said that all but two of the formal complaints involved multiple accusers. A number of his private office staff from his first stretch at the MoJ are among those believed to have made submissions. The total number of complainants is thought to be at least two dozen, and could be more than 30, sources claim.

The Guardian understands that Sunak personally read excerpts from a number of the written statements submitted as part of the initial tranche of complaints before ordering the investigation by Adam Tolley KC into potential breaches of the ministerial code.

Raab, who has stayed in post while the inquiry is ongoing, has vowed to “thoroughly rebut and refute” the formal complaints. He has said he is confident he “acted professionally” throughout his time in three different cabinet posts.

However, the latest claims will come as another blow as he attempts to move on from the scandal. Raab faces potentially damaging allegations over bullying behaviour when dealing with civil servants, including some in senior roles, including that he “belittled and demeaned” them and was “very rude and aggressive” on multiple occasions each day.

Read the full story here:

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said he has a “special bond” with Boris Johnson in an interview where he branded Vladimir Putin a “nobody” and suggested it was too late for face-to-face talks with the Russian leader.

Speaking to Sky News, Zelenskiy declined to say whether Johnson, who he described as “a good guy”, should get an official role representing the UK on Ukraine. Laughing, he said:

Who knows? With pleasure, with pleasure, really.

His comments came after Johnson made a surprise visit to Ukraine on the weekend, which he said was at the invitation of President Zelenskiy. Johnson was pictured in the town of Borodianka in the Kyiv region, and said it was a “privilege” to be there to show solidarity with the war-torn nation.

Boris Johnson made an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Sunday.
Boris Johnson made an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Sunday. Photograph: Ukrainian Presidential Press Off/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

Asked if he would support another bid by Johnson to become prime minister, Zelenskiy replied:

I think that is not correct for me to support Johnson to be prime minister. We have good relations with Sunak. I think we had more long relations with Johnson, because it was more long-time. I saw Johnson in different situations, I saw him not in war and then in full-scale war, that’s why we have special relations.

My colleague Martin Belam is covering all the latest news from the Russia-Ukraine war on our blog.

Zahawi inquiry could conclude within 10 days, says senior minister

The work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride, has suggested the ethics probe into Nadhim Zahawi could conclude in as little as 10 days.

Asked on ITV’s Peston programme last night about rumours that the probe could be done within 10 days, Stride said it “wouldn’t be untypical” for Sir Laurie Magnus to operate in that timeframe.

He added:

I can’t be drawn on an arrangement of which I don’t know all the details. But the good news is that we will – in around, it sounds like, 10 days’ time or thereabouts – hear from the ethics adviser, who will report to the prime minister, the prime minister will then have the facts and be able to make exactly those judgments.

Downing Street has not set a timeline or indicated the pace of the inquiry, only saying it hoped Sir Laurie could report back “swiftly”.

The matter of who knew what about Nadhim Zahawi’s dealings with the taxman and when in Whitehall and No 10 is the subject of intense scrutiny and could yet define Rishi Sunak’s premiership.

Sunak has sought to put down suggestions he was aware that Zahawi paid a penalty to HMRC prior to his appointment as the Conservative party’s chair on 25 October 2022.

The prime minister initially told the House of Commons last week that Zahawi had already addressed the matter “in full”. But after the Guardian revealed on Friday that a penalty had been paid, the prime minister’s spokesperson refused to confirm that Sunak had been told of this detail by Zahawi or officials.

Zahawi paid an estimated total of £5m, including interest, about £3.7m in tax owed and penalty of 30%, a source told the Guardian. Sunak told MPs on Wednesday: “The issues in question occurred before I was prime minister.”

He added:

The usual appointments process was followed, no issues were raised with me when he was appointed to his current role and, since I commented on this matter last week, more information has come forward. That is why I have asked the independent adviser to look into the matter.

Sunak’s version of events is set against more than two years of discussions of Zahawi’s financial dealings at the highest levels in Whitehall, among Sunak’s own former department, the Treasury, and his former and current cabinet colleagues.

The former prime minister, Boris Johnson, and home secretary, Priti Patel, were notified of a National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation into Zahawi as early as 2020, the Guardian understands.

Read the full story here:

Rishi Sunak’s cabinet heads to Chequers as PM under siege to sack Nadhim Zahawi

Good morning. Rishi Sunak us hosting a cabinet away day at his country house, Chequers, where the embattled Nadhim Zahawi is expected to attend, in an outing that has been dubbed a “hideaway day” by opposition parties.

The Cabinet’s away day comes after days of damaging headlines about Zahawi’s tax affairs, with the Conservative party chairman subject to an ethics probe. Sunak ordered an investigation by Sir Laurie Magnus, his independent adviser on ministers’ interests, into whether Zahawi broke ministerial rules over the estimated £4.8m bill he settled with HMRC while he was chancellor.

The result of that investigation could take just 10 days, according to work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride. Speaking on ITV’s Peston programme on Wednesday, he said:

I can’t be drawn on an arrangement of which I don’t know all the details. But the good news is that we will, in around it sounds like ten days’ time or thereabouts, hear from the ethics adviser, who will report to the prime minister, the prime minister will then have the facts and be able to make exactly those judgments.

There is growing pressure on Sunak from senior Tories and the opposition to take decisive action against Zahawi irrespective of an ongoing inquiry.

Sunak will sack Zahawi if he is judged to have “fallen foul” of the ministerial code, trade minister Andrew Bowie told the BBC last night. Lord Barwell, a former Downing Street chief of staff to Theresa May, said the lack of public defence being offered for Zahawi suggested his role could be in jeopardy.

The meeting also comes after my colleague Pippa Crerar’s report that Dominic Raab is facing a much broader bullying investigation than originally anticipated with at least 24 civil servants involved in formal complaints against him.

Downing Street offered few details about what today’s Chequers away day would entail, but said Cabinet ministers would be “focused on the five priority areas” that Sunak spoke about in his new year’s speech.

The Lib Dems accused the PM and his cabinet of effectively dodging scrutiny as the country grapples with a range of crises. Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said:

While Rishi Sunak and his scandal-hit ministers hold a ‘hideaway’ day at Chequers, the rest of the country is suffering from this endless Conservative chaos. The NHS is in crisis and people are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, but Conservative ministers are too busy fighting to save their own careers. Sunak’s promise to govern with integrity now lies in tatters. He can’t even tackle the multiple crises facing his Cabinet, let alone the huge challenges facing the country.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am. NHS England will publish its weekly situation report for hospitals, plus figures for GP appointments and GP/NHS workforce.

9.30am. Office for National Statistics to publish its figures on economic activity and social change in the UK.

9.30am. In the Commons: Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions; Questions to the Church Commissioners, House of Commons Commission, Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, Public Accounts Commission and Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission; Business Statement and questions to the Leader of the House; General debate on Holocaust Memorial Day; Adjournment debate on the Midland Metro extension.

11am. In the Lords: Introduction of Lord Sewell of Sanderstead; Oral questions on supporting UK manufacturing after Brexit, proposed reforms to the Mental Health Act, and meeting the needs of autistic pupils in mainstream secondary schools; Debate on the level of resilience of the armed forces; Short debate on the Skidmore net zero review; Debate on the life chances and educational prospects of vulnerable teenagers.

12pm. Rishi Sunak’s cabinet meets for an away day at the prime minister’s country house, Chequers.

12pm. First Minister’s Questions will take place at Holyrood.

2pm. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will publish its weekly Covid-19 and flu surveillance report.

3.30pm. Read-out of the cabinet meeting.

Hello everyone. I’m Léonie Chao-Fong and I’ll be covering Andrew Sparrow on the blog today and tomorrow. Feel free to get in touch on Twitter or via email.




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#Sunak #cabinet #Chequers #minister #Zahawi #inquiry #conclude #days #politics #live

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