A year ago, Nadhim Zahawi was supposed to join Boris Johnson’s cabinet. But after a traumatic day for Downing Street, the Prime Minister turned to a trusted supporter who would become his third Chancellor.
The rapid rise of Johnson’s recent decision to head the Treasury began in November 2020 when he was asked to oversee the rollout of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine. He has been widely praised by Tory MPs for his quiet media appearances at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Zahawi’s promotion to chancellor marks the latest step in the rapid rise of a minister who senior Conservatives believe will one day lead their party.
The 55-year-old was born in Iraqi Kurdistan and came to England aged 11 after his family fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1978. His teachers warned Zahawi’s parents that he might suffer from learning disabilities after initially struggling to speak English.
Before politics, Zahawi pursued a successful business career. As well as being an advisor to writer and former Tory MP Jeffrey Archer, he also distributed t-shirts and Teletubbies Goods to retailers such as Marks and Spencer.
In 2000, together with his conservative colleague Stephan Shakespeare, he founded the opinion research company YouGov, which specializes in online surveys. Five years later it went public.
Zahawi entered Parliament in 2010 as MP for Stratford-upon-Avon and was appointed to political unit number 10 under David Cameron’s party leadership. He supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
He joined government as a junior minister in the Department of Education under Theresa May and later became Minister for Industry. He was promoted to Johnson’s education secretary following a cabinet reshuffle in September 2021.
Following Sunak’s resignation Tuesday night, Johnson, a longtime friend, turned to Zahawi to try to stabilize his government and the economy.
A senior government insider described Zahawi as a “class act” and hinted that he would pursue a different economic strategy than Sunak: “He has a history of aspiration, drive and advancement.”
The official added: “For the next phase we need a growth plan and not just balancing the books. He represents the values and commitment of the government.”
Another Johnson ally said the prime minister and new chancellor are on the same page on the economy. “Nadhim was very quick to identify what the Prime Minister is increasingly frustrated with, namely a credible, simple and compelling plan to boost the economy and make the UK the best place in the northern hemisphere to start a business.”
However, Zahawi’s decision to take the job drew criticism from some Conservative MPs. One influential backbencher said: “He has taken the helm of a sinking ship. He’s with Boris now until he goes down.”
But his decision to back Johnson speaks volumes for his aspirations. In recent months, Zahawi has quietly begun preparing for a leadership bid if Johnson is evicted from Downing Street.
One MP who supports a possible Zahawi candidacy said his new role could improve his future chances. “Stabilizing the markets and becoming better known only helps for the future.”
A Tory party insider close to him said he would likely run for the top job. “Nadhim will not act against Boris, he is absolutely loyal. But if he goes, I have no doubt he will pass.”