WHILE Rishi Sunak would have been embarrassed and annoyed by having been caught and then fined for not wearing his seatbelt, the Prime Minister’s focus could well be elsewhere this morning.

Nadhim Zahawi, a close colleague, a fellow former Chancellor and now the Conservative Party Chairman, is at the centre of a growing storm over money, a subject that has often caught politicians in the headlines.

And Labour has today resorted to the tried and tested s-word: “sleaze”. It has upped the ante by calling for the Stratford upon Avon MP to be sacked following unverified reports he paid a penalty sum to HM Revenue and Customs as part of a multi-million pound tax settlement.

The central claim is Zahawi avoided tax but has now had to pay back a considerable sum to the taxman: almost £5m.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, didn’t pull her punches, claiming the Tory Chairman’s position had become “untenable” and the prime minister must sack him.

“Nadhim Zahawi's story doesn't add up,” she declared. “The position of the man who was until recently in charge of the UK's tax system and who this prime minister appointed Conservative Party Chair is now untenable.

"It's time for Rishi Sunak to put his money where his mouth is and dismiss Nadhim Zahawi from his Cabinet.”

Then she added: “The fact that Nadhim hasn't been out on the airwaves explaining himself to me adds insult to injury.”

One Tory insider admitted questions over Zahawi’s tax affairs would result in his position as party Chairman – at the heart of the party’s upcoming English local election campaign - would eventually become unsustainable.

He told The Times: “Nadhim has done great work at CCHQ. He cares about data, he gets organisations, he’s really thrown himself into the structures. But his biggest skill is going out on the media and now he can’t do that because he’ll just be asked about his taxes.”

The company at the centre of the tax row is the Gibraltar-registered Balshore Investments. Zahawi has been quizzed about if he used it to hold his shares in YouGov, the polling company he co-founded in 2000. The Cabinet minister has repeatedly denied this.

YouGov’s 2009 annual report showed a more than 10% shareholding by Balshore, describing the company as the “family trust of Nadhim Zahawi”, then an executive director of the pollster.

The company has been commercially successful. Balshore reportedly sold shares in transactions between 2006 and 2018 for up to £27m.

The Guardian has now reported Zahawi has not only had to pay back the tax owed but also with a 30% penalty. It said the total amounted to an eye-watering £4.8m.

Dan Neidle, of the Tax Policy Associates think tank, said: “You don’t pay a 30% penalty if your tax affairs are in order. You do it, at best, if you’ve been careless; if you haven’t paid tax that’s due.”

When the newspaper asked about the penalty, intriguingly Zahawi's spokesman didn’t deny one had been paid.

However, pressed on the near £5m sum, he made clear the party Chairman did “not recognise this amount” and stressed: “As he has previously stated, his taxes are properly declared and paid in the UK.”

HMRC has made clear it doesn’t comment on identifiable taxpayers.

While at PMQs this week, Sunak insisted Zahawi had “already addressed this matter in full and there’s nothing more that I can add,” the problem for Downing St is that so long as the party Chairman does not give a full statement, the more suspicions will linger.

Dominic Raab, the deputy PM, had the uncomfortable task on the radio this morning of knocking back questions over his colleague’s tax affairs.

Claiming Zahawi had been "very transparent" about the matter, he added: “He has been clear that all of his tax owed to HMRC are up to date and paid in full. If he needs to answer any further questions, I'm sure he'll do so.” He does.

After questions were raised about Suella Braverman returning as Home Secretary following her resignation over her breaching the ministerial code and the inquiry into allegations of bullying against Raab, which he totally denies, and now the seatbelt story, questions are continually popping up about Sunak’s judgement.

Of course, all this is happily reinforced by Labour whose main offensive against the PM is that he is a weak leader. Repeatedly calling his judgement into question is a key part of the electoral strategy. The public need to be fed lines on this drip by well-timed drip.

It wasn’t long ago that, after the Boris Johnson debacle, that the PM promised a government of “honesty, integrity and accountability”.

The Sunday papers could prove difficult for Number 10 unless the currently elusive pimpernel breaks his silence. Sunshine, as David Cameron told us, is the best disinfectant. Transparency is essential.

Without a full statement from Zahawi, Sunak’s discomfort will continue and so too the political damage. And both men know it.