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.