Who is Nadhim Zahawi? The child-refugee turned multi-millionaire politician facing questions about his taxes | Political News


He is a former child refugee who sold Teletubbies merchandise, founded the UK’s best known polling company and was once tipped as a frontrunner for prime minister.

But Nadhim Zahawi’s rise through the echelons of Westminster is currently being overshadowed by questions around his tax affairs.

So how did the 55-year-old rise to be the toast of the Tories before ending up facing an ethics investigation over the handling of his finances?

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early years

Mr Zahawi was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and spent his early years growing up as part of an influential Kurdish family.

His father was a well-known businessman and his grandfather was the governor of the Central Bank of Iraq.

But after Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, the dictator began to target the Kurds.

“It was clear to my family Iraq would not be safe under his leadership and that is when we decided we had to flee to the UK,” Mr Zahawi told his local newspaper, the Stratford Herald.

He arrived in the UK aged 11, unable to speak a word of English, and began his new life by going to Holland Park School in London.

Soon, his family moved him from a comprehensive education to private school, and he studied at both Ibstock Place School, Roehampton, and then King’s College School, Wimbledon, both in southwest London.

However, as he was set to go off to university, an investment by his father went belly up and the family lost everything, except for their Vauxhall car.

Mr Zahawi used the vehicle to become a minicab driver to contribute to the family finances, but his mother insisted he carry on studying and pawned her jewelery to cover the costs.

So off he went to University College London to study chemical engineering.

business endeavors

After graduating in 1988, it was the world of business he wanted to pursue and he sought to echo his father’s example as an entrepreneur.

Like his father, it didn’t always go right – his setting up of a firm that sold Teletubbies merchandise ended as a “costly and painful mistake”, he later said.

But it did attract the attention and investment of Lord Jeffrey Archer – who once described him as a “born organizer” – and opened doors to the senior ranks of the Conservative Party.

Mr Zahawi became an aid to Lord Archer and in return, the peer helped with his own campaign to become a Tory councillor, winning a seat in the London borough of Wandsworth in 1994.

There was also a failed attempt to enter Parliament in 1997, when he competed for the new seat of Erith and Thamesmead amid a Labor landslide.

Read more: What do we know about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs?

He helped with Lord Archer’s London mayoral campaign in 1998 too, but it was brought to an early close when the peer pulled out of the race amid controversy.

It was the turn of the millennium that signaled another change in Mr Zahawi’s fortunes when, alongside another former aide of Lord Archer’s, Stephan Shakespeare, he founded polling company YouGov.

The business grew and grew, and within five years it was floated on the stock market valued at £18m.

He would later tell Sky News he was “the beneficiary of the british dream“.

According to the Evening Standard, Mr Zahawi cashed in £1.2m of shares in 2005, and went on to work as the firm’s CEO for a further five years.

But having made his fortune, he set his sights firmly back on the world of politics and, in 2010, he was elected as the MP for Stratford-upon-Avon.

Picture:
Mr Zahawi became an MP at the 2010 election.

Masters Of Nothing

A year later, with the world still affected by the fallout from the 2008 recession, he co-authored a book with fellow MP Matt Hancock, titled Masters Of Nothing: How The Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature.

He began to gain some recognition at the party, becoming part of the Number 10 policy unit advising the then Prime Minister David Cameron.

However, in this early part of his Commons career, he became more known to the public for his part in the 2013 expenses scandal, having claimed cash to power his horses’ stables.

It wasn’t until 2018 that Mr Zahawi was appointed into his first junior minister post – a parliamentary under secretary at the Department for Education – and a year later he was moved to the business department.

But he became a household name after COVID broke out in the UK and he was appointed by Boris Johnson to become the country’s vaccine minister, receiving widespread praise for his work in the Department of Health and Social Care to tackle the pandemic.

Nadhim Zahawi
Picture:
As vaccines minister, Mr Zahawi became a household name.

‘Do the right thing and go’

The performance propelled him to cabinet and in September 2021, he took his first secretary of state post, back in the Department for Education.

The chaos that ensued the following year as Mr Johnson’s downfall played out in public saw him pushed up the ranks again, replacing Rishi Sunak as chancellor in Number 11 after his dramatic resignation.

But two days later, Mr Zahawi joined the growing horde of ministers calling for the PM to step down, telling Mr Johnson: “You must do the right thing and go now.”

A vacancy was created at the top, and he threw his hat in the ring to become the next Tory leader and next prime minister.

Giving his first broadcast campaign interview to Sky News, Mr Zahawi promised that under his control, the government would reduce corporation tax, income tax and national insurance.

But the issue of his own finances was brought to the fore after reports his tax affairs had been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency and HMRC.

‘I was clearly being smeared’

“I was clearly being smeared,” he told Kay Burley. “I’m not aware of this. I’ve always declared my taxes – I’ve paid my taxes in the UK. I will answer any questions HMRC has of me.

“But I will go further. I will make a commitment today, that if I am prime minister the right thing to do is publish my accounts annually. That is the right thing to do because we need to take this issue off the table.”

Mr Zahawi didn’t make it through the first round of balloting, and instead threw his backing behind Liz Truss.

Liz Truss and Nadhim Zahawi
Picture:
After failing to make it further in the Tory leadership contest, Mr Zahawi gave his backing to Liz Truss.

He carried on in the Treasury until Ms Truss took the keys to Number 10, but was dealt a demotion in her cabinet, instead becoming Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, minister for intergovernmental relations and minister for equalities.

As we know, this premiership was not to last long, and weeks later – under Rishi Sunak – Mr Zahawi was made chairman of the Tory Party.

A seven-figure sum

But those questions raised over the summer regarding his taxes were soon to resurface again.

In January 2023, The Sun On Sunday published a report claiming Mr Zahawi had paid a seven-figure sum to settle a dispute with HMRC over the sales of his YouGov shares.

Sky News made several attempts in the following days to get Mr Zahawi to confirm or deny the story, but his team refused, instead saying his tax affairs “were and are fully up to date and are paid in the UK”.

Mr Sunak stood by him during Prime Minister’s Questions that week, but by the weekend, the swirl of questions was growing by the hour.

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Zahawi admits tax settlement

‘Careless not deliberate error’

On Saturday, he admitted he paid what HMRC said “was due” after it “disagreeed about the exact allocation” of shares in YouGov.

The Tory chairman said this was a “careless and not a deliberate error” and didn’t confirm if any penalty was also levied.

But Sky News understands that, as part of a settlement with HMRC, Mr Zahawi paid a penalty to the tax collector.

The exact size of the settlement has not been disclosed, but it is reported to be an estimated £4.8m including a 30% penalty.

By Monday, Mr Sunak had ordered a potentially far-reaching investigation into Mr Zahawi to be conducted by the PM’s new ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus.

But the prime minister resisted calls to sack Mr Zahawi, saying he retained “confidence” in his colleague.

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