Profile: Nadhim Zahawi, vaccines minister and a rising star who also knows what it is like to fall

12 Feb

Nadhim Zahawi is a rising star who has taken a long time to rise. By making him Minister for Vaccine Deployment, Boris Johnson has at last given him a tremendous opportunity to show what he can do.

Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee and knows Zahawi well, says of him: “He’d get you mangoes in the Antarctic and brussels sprouts in the desert.”

A minister told ConHome: “He’s a completely under-rated talent and it’s fantastic that he’s been given his head.”

Lord Archer, for whom Zahawi worked in the 1990s, recently told Radio 4:

“What I discovered very quickly with Nadhim was that he was a born organiser. If you said to him ‘I need six taxis, three aeroplanes and a double-decker bus all in 30 minutes’ time’ he went and did it.”

Zahawi’s warmest friends and admirers testify that he is “a wheeler-dealer” whose manner is reminiscent of Arthur Daley. They add that he is “very, very ambitious”, but “his heart’s in the right place” and “he’s a good person underneath it all”.

In 1996 Zahawi delivered the “Rising Star” speech at the Conservative Party Conference, and in February 1997 The Independent on Sunday included his name when it predicted, with wonderful audacity, who would be in the Conservative Cabinet of 2020.

The newspaper tipped Chris Grayling, who served in the Cabinet from 2012-19, and John Bercow, Commons Speaker from 2009-19, and got two other names exactly right: Robert Buckland, a Cabinet minister since 2019, and Boris Johnson, of whom it reported,

“Not shy in clashing with party lines, Boris would ‘renegotiate EU membership so Britain stands to Europe as Canada, not Texas, stands to the USA’.”

Zahawi is as yet no more than a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Why the slow rate of progress under Johnson, whom he has known for 20 years?

The answer lies in the leadership contest of 2019. Figures such as Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick, Oliver Dowden, Grant Shapps and Gavin Williamson who came out for Johnson are in the Cabinet.

In the 2016 contest, Zahawi had backed Johnson, telling readers of The Daily Telegraph:

“You only need to spend a few minutes in the company of Boris and a voter to understand his natural abilities, and the chance he presents to help restore the image of politicians with a cynical public. He can unite our country. Boris is not just a personality who people like, but a real leader…

“I’m absolutely certain he’s the right choice and the leader we need to guide us into a new relationship with our allies. He can be the prime minister who finishes the job, and creates this better Britain.”

Yet in the 2019 contest, Zahawi backed Dominic Raab, attacked Johnson as “a controversial face from the past”, warned friends that under Johnson’s leadership “it could go really wrong”, and told readers of ConHome:

“In Dominic Raab we someone with the skill as well as the conviction to navigate the rocky road ahead. Someone who has the experience of negotiating with Brussels but also the courage to walk away without a deal…

“He’s the right choice, the trusted choice and the serious choice.”

In the second round of voting, Raab came sixth, backed by only 30 MPs, and was eliminated, having been beaten, in ascending order, by Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Johnson, who already had 126 votes.

Zahawi was observed to look “ashen-faced”. He had committed what one close observer calls “a horrible error of judgment”, and was perhaps fortunate to cling on in government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Business and Industry, having under Theresa May served since January 2018 as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families.

One way in which he recovered from this setback was by readily agreeing, at various low points in Johnson’s prime ministership, to requests from Downing Street to go on television and radio in order, in the words of one of Zahawi’s friends, “to defend the indefensible”.

The stickier the wicket, the calmer Zahawi sounded. He has the “willingness to go out in all weathers” which in an earlier age was attributed to Charles James Fox.

And he has known adversity. He was born in June 1967 in Baghdad to Kurdish parents, his father a businessman, his mother a dentist.

His grandfather, after whom he is named, was Governor of the Central Bank of Iraq from May 1959 to November 1960: “his signature was on the banknotes,” the grandson has remarked.

In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein tightened his grip on Iraq and began his persecution of the Kurds, which was to culminate in genocide. When Zahawi was nine, his parents fled with him to Britain, where they arrived with £50.

They found their feet and settled near Crowborough, in Sussex. Zahawi became a keen horseman, competed as a showjumper, and was sent to King’s College Wimbledon, an independent school.

When he was 18, his father invested in an American company which had invented a machine called Air Knife, which could supposedly use air to dig up roads:

“In mad entrepreneur fashion my father rang my mum and said, ‘This is going to be a huge success.’ He remortgaged our home, put everything into this thing. Of course you know how this story ends, the company went bankrupt and the bank took our home and everything except one thing: we had a Vauxhall Opel Senator car that was in my mother’s name so they couldn’t take it.”

The family was destitute:

“I had to make a choice whether I went to university or become a cab driver to put food on the table. We had nothing, and had to go on housing benefit and income support. For about a month my dad wouldn’t leave the bedroom because he was so distraught. When you have that level of breakdown, of failure, it really is like a vortex, and our biggest challenge was to get him out of the room and get him to have a shave, go out, and find work.”

All was not lost:

“My mother was a dentist. We had a half-decent education. We were able to sit down and work our way through this disaster… 

“Many of my left-leaning friends will say you can’t tackle education until you tackle the challenge of poverty. I see it the other way round, you don’t tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education.”

Zahawi read chemical engineering at University College London, and began a career in business, marketing tee-shirts and Teletubbies merchandise, at first without much success.

He also entered Conservative politics, serving from 1994-2004 as a councillor in Wandsworth, and in 1997 contesting the hopeless seat of Erith and Thamesmead.

In 1991 he had met Jeffrey Archer, who was raising money for the Kurds. In 1998, when Lord Archer (as he became in 1992 on John Major’s recommendation) was preparing to run for Mayor of London, he took on Zahawi and Stephan Shakespeare to help run his campaign.

The following year, Archer was accused of perjury, and had to withdraw from the mayoral race. He was later convicted and sent to prison.

Zahawi and Shakespeare wondered what to do instead. In 2000 they set up YouGov. The polling side of the new firm proved itself by predicting with extraordinary accuracy the result of the 2001 general election, and Will Young’s victory in Pop Idol in 2002.

In the selection in 2004 for the safe seat of Surrey Heath, Zahawi was beaten by Gove, as were many other aspirant Conservative MPs, including Nick Hurd, Steve Hilton, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Laura Sandys.

In 2009 the expenses scandal precipitated the retirement of a number of MPs, and in 2010 Zahawi was selected for the safe seat of Stratford-on-Avon.

He has said how pleased he was, as an ethnic minority candidate, to be selected for such an overwhelmingly white seat. He pointed out to the selectors that if they closed their eyes, he sounded as British as they did.

But his friend Sajid Javid recalled, in the recent Radio 4 Profile of Zahawi, that racism was not entirely absent:

“I remember him saying to me he was handing out leaflets on the street somewhere and someone had screwed it up in front of him and said that if you were on fire I wouldn’t waste my piss on you.”

YouGov had been floated on the stock exchange in 2005 and Zahawi was by now a wealthy man. He admires his former constituent, William Shakespeare, and he has acquired a riding stables outside Stratford.

He soon showed his gift for attracting attention, notably when his tie started playing a tune as he spoke in the Commons.

Along with Matt Hancock, who has since become Health Secretary, he wrote a bookMasters of Nothing: How the Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature.

And in 2012 he became a leading figure in the successful revolt against the Coalition Government’s plans to reform the House of Lords. He was made a member of the Policy Unit, but received no ministerial preferment while David Cameron was Prime Minister.

Nor did Theresa May feel any urgent need to send for Zahawi. He is an ebullient figure, and in parts of the parliamentary party may well have inspired a degree of envious distrust, by being so rich compared to most MPs, and so outspoken a supporter of the Kurdish cause, a region where by now he had oil interests.

Exotic origins, ebullient self-confidence and love of seemingly lost causes are more congenial to Johnson, who in 2015 visited Kurdistan with Zahawi, and was photographed by Andrew Parsons squinting down the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle.

Zahawi campaigned for Brexit, making his case on ConHome. In 2017 he was affected by Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States, and had no hesitation in attacking it:

“For the first time in my life last night I felt discriminated against, it’s demeaning, it’s sad… I don’t think we should look away when President Trump makes a mistake.”

As minister since November for vaccine deployment, Zahawi has been able to issue a series of wonderfully encouraging progress reports, and is well placed to combat the reluctance of some members of ethnic minorities to take the vaccine.

What will happen to him next is anyone’s guess. He said that when his family fell on hard times, education made the difference. Were there to be a vacancy in that department, he would be an obvious candidate.

Opposition to new national lockdowns is growing on the Conservative backbenches

22 Sep

Boris Johnson will speak to the Commons this afternoon and to the nation this evening about the Government’s latest Coronavirus measures.  We wait to see exactly what he will announce, but the thrust of his proposals seems clear enough. Essentially, he wants to separate work and home life.

The Prime Minister aims to keep work going in as normal a way as possible – with face covers, hand-washing and social distancing in place to help make this possible.  This is government “putting its arms” around the economy, to borrow a phrase he likes to use.  It is the part of the policy aimed at protecting livelihoods.

Meanwhile, home life and leisure will take the strain of reducing the growth in Covid-19 cases.  There is a rule of six.  Pubs and restaurants will shut at 10pm.  There will be marshalls as well as fines.  Not to mention lockdowns – like those currently now in place in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere. This is the half of the policy intended to save lives.

Whether this scheme will last long is doubtful.  We’ve explained previously on this site why many schools may not stay open fully, or may close altogether.  That will have a knock-on effect on the economy, since parents with younger children will often have no alternative but to stay at home, and provide the childcare themselves.

Furthermore, the division between work, home and leisure isn’t always clear.  The first and third meet in retail: some shopping is leisure; all staffing is work.  As the debate within government over the new 10pm closing time for pubs, restaurants and outlets indicates, non-essential shopping is vulnerable to new closures.  And Ministers are already backing off the push to get workers to return to offices (since they will be more relucant to use public transport).

It looks as though we’re on the way to another national lockdown – in effect, if most cities are locked down; or formally, if the Government eventually declares one.  Tomorrow, in the wake of the Prime Minister’s broadcast, we will return to the big questions.

Such as: what’s the fundamental aim of the policy?  If it is no longer to protect the NHS, is it to suppress the virus?  If so, are the healthcare trade-offs that would arise from such a policy worthwhile – let alone the wider economic ones?  Why isn’t testing and tracing, rather than lockdowns, taking the strain of reducing the disease, as intended?  For today, we want to probe what happened yesterday during Matt Hancock’s Commons statement.

Chris Grayling, Greg Clark, Harriet Baldwin, Simon Fell, Simon Clarke, Alec Shelbrooke, Anthony Browne, Graham Brady, Andrew Percy, Jason McCartney, Shaun Bailey, Marco Longhi, Edward Leigh, Pauline Latham, Bernard Jenkin, Duncan Baker, James Davies, William Wragg, Steve Brine, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan spoke.

Of these, Grayling, Clarke, Brady, Leigh, Latham, Baker, Wragg and Brine were all, to varying degrees, hostile to another national lockdown.  Browne’s question was perhaps in broadly the same camp.  We are beginning to see resistence to new national shutdowns intensify on the Conservative backbenches.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

– – – – – – – – – –

The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Profile: Chris Grayling, scorned defender of the unglamorous middle class

16 Jul

Chris Grayling is one of the most unjustly denigrated Tories of recent years. The news yesterday afternoon that he had unexpectedly failed to become chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, having been defeated by a manoeuvre by Julian Lewis, was greeted, one is sorry to report, not just with gasps of surprise but with howls of laughter in the Commons press gallery.

For it appeared to confirm the received opinion that everything Grayling touches turns to dust. Indeed, even before he failed to get the job, he was the subject of dismissive comment.

Here is Rachel Sylvester, expressing with her usual precision in her column in The Times the reaction of members of the Establishment to his prospective appointment:

“It’s like replacing James Bond with Johnny English. The prime minister’s decision to make Chris Grayling chairman of the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has been greeted with ridicule in parliament and raised eyebrows in Whitehall. This crucial role has always been held by senior figures who are widely respected for their independence, experience and expertise…

“One Tory grandee, who served in cabinet with him, says of the ISC chairmanship: ‘Whatever the reason for manoeuvring Grayling into that position, it’s clearly not to do with ability.’ Another former minister describes him as a ‘perpetual failure’, while a former Conservative strategist reveals that when he worked in No 10 ‘aides regularly scratched their heads about why he was considered worthy of senior cabinet roles’.”

What perfect intellectual snobbery. Grayling is not one of us. He’s a dimwit with whom it would be pointless to have lunch.

His loyalty and assiduity are ignored. The press long ago decided he is one of the guilty men. For while cautious careerists have prospered by keeping their heads down while fulfilling the demands of the powers that be, Grayling rose and then stuck around thanks to his vulgar talent for saying what the public think.

Born in London in 1964, he was brought up in Buckinghamshire and went to the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, where he was known to some as Failing Grayling.

At Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, he read history, joined the Social Democratic Party, and was known to some as the Grey Thing. On leaving, he joined the BBC.

His political persona soon became that of a stalwart defender of the unglamorous middle class. As if to make up for his youthful flirtation with Social Democracy, he always tries, according to one of his colleagues, “to be the most Conservative voice in the room”.

“He’s completely decent,” another ministerial colleague says. “He’s a loyal Conservative who dutifully serves the party while also having strong views of his own.”

Advisers, some of whom refer to him as “the Grey Lord”, are often quite fond of him: there is nothing grand about him. Ministers who have served under him sometimes grind their teeth at the memory of his insistence on micromanaging things in a dogmatic and cackhanded way.

Grayling backed Vote Leave: in itself sufficient reason in some quarters to write him off. But he first rose to notice while the Conservatives were still in opposition.

For although David Cameron and his team had many merits, they realised they were not cutting through to the wider public. They needed an attack dog, someone who could make Labour politicians yelp with pain as he sank his teeth into them.

Grayling was that dog. He had worked for the BBC, so understood the soundbites it required, and he had an ability to express the views of middle England which the clever, classy men round Cameron did not possess.

As George Osborne remarked of Grayling, while watching him on television savaging a senior Labour figure: “I’d hate to have him on my tail.”

Here is Iain Martin, praising him in The Daily Telegraph in December 2008:

“Chris Grayling has proved himself one of the Tories few really effective attack dogs this year. He is expert at obtaining government leaks or rooting around in official stats to find embarrassing evidence of ministerial incompetence, and then broadcasting pithy soundbites in reaction on TV like a young Norman Tebbit.”

Grayling was a rising star. He entered the House as MP for Epsom and Ewell in 2001, joined the Shadow Cabinet and was appointed Shadow Leader of the House by Michael Howard in 2005, and this was followed by appointments by Cameron as Shadow Transport Secretary, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and, in early 2009, Shadow Home Secretary.

But in the life of an attack dog, whose jaws must fasten at once on any prey that presents itself, mistakes are liable sometimes to occur. Grayling at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2009 sank his fangs into Sir Richard Dannatt, presumed by him to be one of Gordon Brown’s appointments, but actually one of Cameron’s.

The following March, The Observer published a recording of Grayling telling the Centre for Policy Studies:

“I personally always took the view that, if you look at the case of should a Christian hotel owner have the right to exclude a gay couple from a hotel, I took the view that if it’s a question of somebody who’s doing a B&B in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn’t come into their own home. If they are running a hotel on the high street, I really don’t think that it is right in this day and age that a gay couple should walk into a hotel and be turned away because they are a gay couple, and I think that is where the dividing line comes.”

To Grayling, this probably sounded like a judicious compromise, but gay rights campaigners were up in arms, to the grave embarrassment of the Cameroons, who had been making every effort to show how liberal the Conservative Party now was.

When Cameron soon afterwards formed his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and had fewer Cabinet posts to hand out than would have been the case in a majority Conservative government, Grayling was one of those who lost out.

Theresa May became, as Home Secretary, the most senior woman in the administration, and Grayling had to content himself with the post of Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions.

He accepted his demotion with good grace, and did valuable work, as seen in this 2011 address by him to the Politeia think tank, on the extraordinarily difficult question of how to make work worthwhile for recipients of welfare benefits.

The progress made in getting people back to work was one of the Coalition’s great successes, and Grayling contributed to it. In 2012 Cameron made him Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary.

In these roles he attracted very poor reviews. On one occasion he shocked the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution by denying that he had an overriding duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary, even though that is in the Lord Chancellor’s oath.

When asked in an interview with ConHome whether it was a disadvantage to be the first Lord Chancellor for 400 years who was not a lawyer, Grayling made the astonishing observation that on the contrary, it was an advantage, as this meant he was not biased in favour of the legal profession.

His suspicion of lawyers, though widely shared by the public, rendered him unsuitable for the role of Lord Chancellor, which Tony Blair’s barbaric reforms had left in a mutilated state.

Grayling conducted a partial privatisation of the probation service which he was told would be a failure, and which was. Although this was Coalition policy, he took the blame for it, as he did for cuts in legal aid, the introduction of court fees and various other misconceived measures.

George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, had inflicted deep cuts on the Justice Department, for which Grayling found himself taking pretty much full responsibility.

In his memoirs, Cameron offers this minimal explanation of why he kept Grayling on after the general election of 2015:

“Chris Grayling seemed a good fit for Leader of the House of Commons (he hadn’t excelled at Justice, but getting rid of him would anger the right).”

Grayling was of value to the Cameroons, because they could point to him as a representative of the right of the party. He was there to lend balance to the Cabinet.

They did not think highly of him, but as one of Grayling’s supporters observes, the Cameroons “did not think highly of any of the Eurosceptics”.

They underestimated his astuteness in internal party matters. He timed to perfection his insistence, to Cameron, in the run-up to the EU Referendum, that ministers must be free to campaign for either side.

And while he was a Leaver, he did not burn his bridges with the Remain camp, and was even regarded within Vote Leave as having remained too close to Remain.

After Leave had won, he quickly fell in behind Theresa May, for whom, many years before, he had run a council campaign in Merton in south London, where Grayling also served as a councillor.

Now he chaired her leadership campaign, and she rewarded him by making him Transport Secretary. Here too he attracted poor reviews. He had signed off a huge, big bang change to the railway timetable which became a fiasco.

And he was mocked for awarding a ferry contract, so medical supplies could still be obtained in the event of a no deal Brexit, to  a ferry company which had no ships.

The decline of the Merchant Navy makes finding ships in a crisis more difficult than it used to be. Peter Oborne is one of the very few journalists who has sought to defend Grayling’s conduct, pointing out that Philip Hammond, as Chancellor, released the necessary funds too late for more satisfactory arrangements to be made.

Once again, Grayling took the blame on behalf of the Treasury. He displays a willingness to put his head above the parapet even when he has been supplied with nothing much in the way of ammunition.

Grayling backed Boris Johnson for the leadership in 2019, but did not join the new Government. A career as an elder statesman beckoned, but was  impeded yesterday afternoon.

Few senior Conservatives in recent times have attracted such scornful, condescending coverage as him. He is often described as “hapless”, the implication being that he cannot help getting this coverage, which is probably true.

For the press needs scapegoats, and Grayling lacks the soft word that turneth away wrath. He has, however, demonstrated prodigious powers of endurance, keeping going through storms of criticism which would have driven many a lesser figure out of politics.