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2 March 2024updated 04 Mar 2024 10:42am

The tax-dodger’s worst enemy

Dan Neidle on taking on Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Mone and the Post Office.

By Anoosh Chakelian

At a café in the rural expanse around Hunstanton, a sandy seaside town in west Norfolk, the tax lawyer Dan Neidle was making his case. “The duck-fat hash browns here are amazing. I’m getting one. Go on, order one.” I did. He was right.

Thankfully for his bank account, Neidle has turned out to be right about quite a lot of things. Most memorably, the £3.7m in capital gains tax owed by the former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi – sacked by Rishi Sunak last January for not disclosing that he was under investigation by HMRC. Despite the prospect of losing “millions of pounds” if he had been successfully sued by the minister, Neidle pressed ahead with his claims about Zahawi’s finances, and was vindicated. He then turned his attention to the Tory peer Michelle Mone and her husband, the billionaire businessman Douglas Barrowman – who had links to a company that won PPE contracts during the pandemic – and to the Post Office claiming tax relief on the compensation paid to workers wrongfully accused of fraud. Not a bad record for a retired stay-at-home dad.

Neidle, 50, moved from London to Norfolk after leaving his job as head of tax at the magic circle law firm Clifford Chance two years ago. He had earned enough to support his family with his savings (he didn’t tell me how much, but described himself as “stupidly fortunate”). Now, his life is one of wholesome brunches, beach walks, hanging out with his sons, aged ten and 12 – he had promised to make them chicken korma and bhajis the day we met – and bringing down the rich and infamous.

On the hot July day in 2022 when Neidle was first threatened with libel over the Zahawi case, he was lounging with friends by a lake. He received a message from the then chancellor’s lawyer. His younger son slipped on a ladder in the water and his leg became stuck, bent in the rungs. “He was screaming and my wife yelled – I didn’t hear! I was just staring at my phone; my initial reaction was I was stunned. I had to disengage my lizard brain and turn on my lawyer brain.”

Looking relaxed in a grey jumper and cargo trousers, a brush of stubble giving way to his wet-shaven head, Neidle may no longer look like a City lawyer, but his ruthless work ethic remains. The plan had been to recline into post-corporate life, “writing tax policy pieces that 200 people would read”. But upon stopping work, he founded an independent think tank, Tax Policy Associates – a one-man operation – and amassed a network of 50 lawyers and accountants who informally help him hold high-profile people and institutions to account. Often anonymously, they advise him for free, motivated by “a genuine desire to correct something they think is wrong”. Not something you might associate with tax lawyers, I suggested.

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“Yes, we wear moustaches, we tie women to train lines, and we create elaborate tax avoidance schemes for large corporates!” he laughed. “I’m often described as ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’ but that is not true. The job of a commercial lawyer a lot of the time is to help clients not to take tax risks, and stay on track. Really, I’m a gamekeeper-turned-gamekeeper.”

Neidle, a middle-class boy from Bushey, Hertfordshire, is the son of a biochemist who designs anti-cancer drugs. His mother was an advertising copywriter, the brains behind the black-clad Milk Tray man-on-a-mission ads. (“She was then sacked, because that’s how you dealt with junior female staff who came up with good ideas.”) He laughed that “if someone had told 20-something me I would be a tax lawyer, I’d have been appalled”. His wife still claims it took six months of dating before she discovered his profession.

But it was his 25 years of experience in spotting “some hideous tax problem” in companies his clients were looking to buy that helped him find something “odd” about Zahawi’s finances. “It was pretty straightforward. In a way, that was what my day job was.”

Pedantic, nerdy and rich, Neidle is a tax dodger’s worst enemy. While he takes justice seriously (he donates his earnings to the free tax advice charity, Bridge the Gap), he also has a mischief about him – wearing a placid smile and permanent amused expression behind his round, blue glasses. After 24 hours of speaking to libel lawyers and fretting with his wife over whether to take on Zahawi, “it ceased to be stressful and it was just a fun game of litigation, which I enjoy and I’m good at! It really then became a job of tormenting his lawyers…”

Some politicians love him; the Labour MP and former chair of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge told me “he’s a brilliant guy”. Those on the end of his investigations, less so. Mone, with Trump-like élan, calls him “Creepy ‘Captain Tax’” on Twitter. “Dan Neidle has become obsessed about my husband’s business interests,” she wrote. “It’s all a bit creepy. Who is he and who has decided he is the legal and moral authority on all things HMRC?”

Does it bother him? “She just behaved like a loony,” Neidle said. “I think the universal reaction to her was maybe just to giggle and point.” Should she lose her peerage? “That’s not so much my thing to comment on,” he began, then paused. “Why am I hesitating? I’m an idiot. Of course she shouldn’t be in the House of Lords!”

Yet he still sees these cases as rare. “Possibly I’m horribly naive, but I think Zahawi’s an aberration. I don’t think that’s normal. People have suggested I look into all kinds of politicians.” After following up claims about Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt and Jacob Rees-Mogg, he found nothing untoward.

Nevertheless, he lamented a system that he described as more lenient towards tax avoiders than benefit fraudsters and bank-robbers. “If there is a widespread perception there is one rule for them and one for us, that damages everybody’s compliance with the tax system.”

Yet he is sceptical of more radical alternatives promoted by fellow tax justice voices, including the Patriotic Millionaires group of rich people campaigning for a wealth tax. “I fear they are misdirected. Wealth taxes have failed universally, with the possible exception of Switzerland, which doesn’t tax well any other way,” Neidle said. “We are never going to have a wealth tax; every second spent advocating for one is a waste of time. They don’t work very well. There are ways we can fix the ones we have: the holes in inheritance tax, capital gains tax, raising the rate of capital tax – those are sensible things to advocate for.”

Neidle is a Labour member and helps with appeal hearings on the National Constitutional Committee, the party’s disciplinary body. He is also part of the Scottish government’s Tax Advisory Forum, and advises politicians across parties, including Conservatives and Lib Dems, on tax reform. He doesn’t see himself as an “activist” (“unless it’s possible to be a centrist activist, or a pro-legal compliance activist?”) and has also investigated Labour politicians – most notably, unexplained payments from the Northumberland National Union of Mineworkers to the former Labour chair Ian Lavery MP (Lavery said he didn’t owe a penny in tax). “If I had reason to think Rachel Reeves had avoided tax, if anyone thinks I wouldn’t be on to that, they haven’t met me!”

Next under his microscope is Labour’s plan to charge private schools VAT. Labour is expected to face legal challenges to the policy. “A framing I always used as a lawyer was ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’,” Neidle said. “So what are the good ways they can try and avoid VAT, which might actually work, what are the bad ways that will fail, and the ugly ways, where people could end up in prison?”

If we were to believe government ministers, Britain is a country that has “had enough of experts” and been held back by “activist lawyers”. But Dan Neidle is exposing the rot they have allowed to set into the state. “The public sphere would benefit from having a few more loud-mouthed experts,” he smiled. “I’d love to see more lawyers, accountants speaking out – I’m sure there are people who could talk about dentistry or investment banks or high-frequency trading: we’d all benefit from hearing them.”

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