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Nadhim Zahawi, the chancellor with his eye on the top job

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This week, only Nadhim Zahawi has ridden a political rollercoaster to rival the one that ejected Boris Johnson from Downing Street. On Monday, he was the UK’s education secretary — his first cabinet posting. By Tuesday, he had been promoted to chancellor. On Wednesday, he was plotting tax cuts alongside the prime minister. 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. But some senior Conservatives think that his rapid about-turn against Johnson will backfire.

Zahawi was born in Baghdad in 1967 to a Kurdish family that fled to Britain when he was just 9. The future education secretary did not speak any English when he arrived, leading his teachers to initially fear he suffered from learning difficulties. He was educated at both state and private schools, before earning a degree in chemical engineering from University College London.

After graduating, Zahawi went into business, though sometimes with mixed results. One of his less successful early ventures was a marketing company that distributed merchandise for the 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 began his political career as a local councillor in the prosperous London borough of Wandsworth. Any national ambitions he harboured took a back seat while he concentrated on enterprise. In 2000, he founded YouGov, one of the first polling companies to focus on online research. But other roles, including earning £1.3mn as a consultant to Gulf Keystone Petroleum, have raised eyebrows. It was reported this week that Zahawi was investigated by the National Crime Agency, but no wrongdoing was found.

In 2010, Zahawi was selected for the safe Tory seat of Stratford-upon-Avon. Unlike many ambitious Tories elected when the party returned to power under David Cameron, his ministerial career did not take off. One Number 10 official who worked with him says: “He was clearly very talented, but did not capture David’s attention.”

Supporting Brexit in the 2016 referendum, however, ensured that his standing within the party rose. A series of junior ministerial appointments 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 praised by MPs for his calm media performances amid widespread fears of shortages.

He also won favour with Whitehall civil servants. One mandarin who worked with him during the pandemic says his sharp focus on data was welcome. “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.”

Since his elevation to the cabinet as education secretary last September, Zahawi has been marked out as a candidate to succeed Johnson. 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 has also been on a fitness kick with the leadership race in mind. “He’s running, literally,” one MP smirks. At working dinners he has taken to eating half portions.

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.

But it is his role in the downfall of Johnson that may determine whether he makes it to Number 10. When Sunak resigned as chancellor on Tuesday, Zahawi was one of the few credible candidates for the job. Some of his supporters were disappointed when he accepted. “We always knew that he is a nice guy but he has poor political judgment,” one friend says. But others felt he had little choice. “These positions have to be filled . . . he will have tried to keep the show on the road.”

The day after he arrived at the Treasury, Zahawi was part of a delegation of ministers who told the prime minister to go. 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 that he can build a national following.

But among Tory activists, who will ultimately choose the next party leader and PM, Zahawi is well liked. He is the party’s second most popular figure with a net approval rating of +66, behind only defence secretary Ben Wallace, who has chosen 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”. Whether that happens depends first on the votes of fellow Tory MPs, who are already well aware of his back-story and government record. They will decide whether Zahawi is capable of helping the party rebuild after the turmoil of the Johnson era.

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