Only Nadhim Zahawi, the only person who has experienced a political rollercoaster that rivals the one that saw Boris Johnson ejected from Downing Street, has been able to ride this week. On Monday, he was the UK’s education secretary — his first cabinet posting. On Tuesday, he was promoted to chancellor. He was working with the prime minister to plan tax cuts on Wednesday. And by Thursday, he had played a central role in ending Johnson’s premiership.
The 55-year-old’s elevation to the second most powerful role in British politics is the latest step in a rapid rise that his allies hope could see him become Britain’s first non-white prime minister. Some Conservatives are worried that Johnson’s sudden turn against him could backfire.
Zahawi was the son of a Kurdish family who fled Baghdad when he was 9. His teachers initially worried that he might have learning difficulties because he did not speak English at all when he arrived in Baghdad. After being educated in both public and private schools, he earned a degree as a chemical engineer from University College London.
Zahawi was a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He went into business after graduation, but sometimes with mixed results. Zahawi started a marketing firm that sold merchandise for children. It was not a very successful venture. Teletubbies children’s television programme. He was also an aide to Lord Jeffrey Archer, the former Tory MP and novelist, including during the latter’s unsuccessful bid to be mayor of London.
Zahawi’s political career began as a local councillor from the prosperous London borough Wandsworth. He remained focused on his enterprise and any national ambitions that he had were put aside. He founded YouGov in 2000, which was one of the first online polling companies. But other roles, including earning £1.3mn as a consultant to Gulf Keystone Petroleum, have raised eyebrows. It was. reportedThe National Crime Agency investigated Zahawi this week but found no wrongdoing.
2010 saw Zahawi elected for the safe Tory seat in Stratford-upon-Avon. Zahawi’s ministerial career didn’t take off, unlike many other ambitious Tories elected in the wake of David Cameron returning to power. One Number 10 official who worked with him says: “He was clearly very talented, but did not capture David’s attention.”
His support for Brexit during the 2016 referendum however ensured his rise within the party. Following that, a number of junior ministerial positions followed. But it was Johnson’s patronage that thrust Zahawi into the spotlight as vaccines minister at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. He was highly praised by MPs because of his calm media performances despite widespread shortage fears.
Whitehall civil servants also favored him. One mandarin who was with him during the pandemic said that his keen focus on data was a welcome trait. “As secretary of state, he was constantly asking, ‘What’s the proof? What’s the evidence?’ during the vaccine roll out,” the official recalls. “Many other ministers just do things simply on instinct.”
Zahawi, who was elevated to education secretary in the cabinet last September has been considered a candidate for Johnson’s successor. Like rivals such as foreign secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor Rishi Sunak, he has been schmoozing MPs and preparing for the prime minister’s departure for months.
He is also on a fitness journey with the leadership race in his mind. “He’s running, literally,” one MP smirks. He will eat only half the food at his work dinners.
Zahawi’s campaign will focus on three elements, according to officials involved: his “phenomenal” back-story; his business hinterland; and his record in government. “A lot of his rivals don’t have business experience before politics, others don’t have the same level of delivery or government experience either,” says one MP who is backing him.
It is his role in Johnson’s fall that could decide whether he makes it past Number 10. Zahawi was among the few credible candidates when Sunak resigned on Tuesday as chancellor. Many of his supporters were disappointed that he accepted the job. “We always knew that he is a nice guy but he has poor political judgment,” one friend says. Others believed he couldn’t choose. “These positions have to be filled . . . he will have tried to keep the show on the road.”
Zahawi was among a group of ministers that told the prime minster to go the day after he arrived at Treasury. In an open letter, he wrote that he was “heartbroken” that his friend of 30 years had not heeded his advice. “Prime minister, you know in your heart what the right thing to do is, and go now.” Johnson acquiesced hours later. “It was Nadhim’s language that finally got Boris over the line,” says one ally of his role in the regicide.
Although his profile in Westminster has risen significantly in recent days, Zahawi’s renown beyond the world of politics is limited. The bookmakers’ Ladbrokes put his odds of being the next prime minister as 12/1, behind five other contenders, including Sunak and Truss. His challenge is to convince MPs he has the ability to create a national following.
Zahawi is a popular Tory activist, but he will eventually be elected party leader and PM. He is the party’s second most popular figure with a Net approval rating: +66This is second only to Ben Wallace, defence secretary, who chose not to stand. Paul Goodman, the editor of ConservativeHome, says, “He has a successful record in business and a successful record in government in delivering the vaccine programme.”
Goodman observes that the impending leadership race is “a lottery”, but adds that if he “gets in front of the members he could do well”. It will depend on the votes of Tory MPs who already know his back story and government record. They will decide if Zahawi has the ability to help the party recover from the turmoil of Johnson’s era.