Gary Lineker faces a legal bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds even if he beats HMRC demands for £5m in unpaid taxes, i understands.

Even before he was mired in a row over impartiality this week when he criticised the Government’s migrant policy, the presenter, who has now stepped down from fronting Match of the Day, was at odds with the BBC.

The legal battle, and the costs he will incur defending himself from the tax demand, suggests there may be underlying reasons for Lineker to be unhappy with his treatment by the BBC.

He is disputing the tax demand by HMRC and arguing that the case should be answered by the BBC rather than himself.

Tax experts have told i that the lawyers Lineker is using to fight his case charge hundreds of pounds an hour and that the total bill will be hundreds of thousands.

Since 2018, the BBC has been involved in a protracted and bitter argument with some of its best-known presenters, including Lineker, over their employment status. Specifically, how they paid their tax.

It stems, it is argued, from the broadcaster’s insistence that they become self-employed. Some presenters, including the former 6 Music presenter Liz Kershaw, say they were forced by the Beeb to become self-employed and to pay their tax through limited companies. She told i the broadcaster did this so it could more easily fire its self-employed presenters.

While the arrangement benefited the BBC and to a degree its top-earning stars, the taxman was not impressed, and BBC stars including Lineker have spent years tied up in legal cases after being pursued with claims by HMRC for tax they say he owes.

Presenters who set up limited companies paid corporation tax, and a dividend tax on their profits, rather than income tax. This saw them pay up to half the amount of tax they would had they been employed directly by the broadcaster.

The depth of upset among BBC stars, as well as how much money was at stake, came to light in 2018. The Times published a letter sent to presenters from Anne Bulford, the BBC’s then deputy director-general, apologising for the “hurt and angst” caused by this tax arrangement.

The paper reported that between 2014 and 2018, the broadcaster’s 66 richest stars had put their £74 million earnings through these company structures, in a move that could have enabled the avoidance of as much of £20 million in tax.

The arrangement landed many staff in hot water with HM Revenue & Customs from 2018, with the taxman arguing they should have been directly employed, and paying more tax. Adrian Chiles won his case after seven years (he was originally asked to pay back £1.7m); Lorraine Kelly successfully argued that she did not owe £1.2m in tax. But Eamonn Holmes lost and had to cough up £250,000. Last year he described the case as a “humiliating experience”.

Lineker’s case will have been going on for years and his fees for employing expensive tax lawyers who charge hundreds of pounds an hour will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to tax experts. HMRC is demanding the presenter pay just under £5m. It is pursuing him under “off-payroll working” rules known as IR35.

Lineker has appealed, and in a hearing last month his lawyer effectively argued that the taxman should not be pursuing Lineker but the BBC.

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He will have to swallow these costs even if he wins his case – which tax experts privately acknowledge he has a good chance of doing – as it is very rare to be awarded costs in tax tribunal cases, no matter how over-ambitious HMRC’s case may be.

Many within the tax industry have sympathy with Lineker’s legal argument.

“I don’t think there is any question that HMRC should be going after the BBC rather than Gary Lineker, particularly for one of the years that they are looking at,” said Robert Salter, an employment and payroll tax expert at Blick Rothenberg, the accountancy firm. From 2017, he says, the law was clear that the tax status of employees was the responsibility of the company and not the individual.

Liz Kershaw has told i that while presenters have been left to deal with the tax repercussions of their employment status, “it was the BBC that created the situation”.

She added that while Lineker is very highly paid, other less well remunerated presenters and BBC staff have experienced none of the upsides of being self-employed but also some very distressing downsides. They lost access to benefits, such as sick pay and pension payments, then found themselves hit with huge tax bills by HMRC. She has said it has caused some staff extreme distress after receiving huge tax bills.

“It’s a really sad situation,” said Kershaw. “I have no axe to grind, as when I was told to set up a company in 2018, I refused. I asked an accountant and employment lawyer for advice before this and he said they said it was inappropriate and not to my advantage.”

An anonymous well-known presenter told i that the whole situation was “badly handled” by the BBC and “left a lot of presenters feeling badly treated.” While their situation was different to Lineker’s, it’s likely the feeling of upset is shared.

When doorstepped on Thursday, Linker said he did not regret his comments on migrant policy. When asked by reporters outside his London home if he stood by what he said, he answered: “Course.” When asked if he feared suspension by the broadcaster, he replied: “No.”

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