The UK’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nadhim Zahawi, promised to deliver tax cuts and tackle rising inflation as he gets to grips with his new role in control of the nation's economy.
Mr Zahawi, who was appointed by Boris Johnson after Rishi Sunak resigned on Tuesday evening, said in his first interview: “You don’t go into this job for an easy life.”
Mr Johnson is grappling with his own MPs to remain as prime minister, and turned to Iraq-born Mr Zahawi to shore up his Cabinet.
There had been suggestions Mr Zahawi had also threatened to resign if he did not get the key job, but he denied this on Sky News. When asked if he would stand for leader if the job became available, he sidestepped the question, saying there was no vacancy.
“I didn’t threaten to resign,” he insisted. “This is a team game. You play for the team and deliver for the nation.”. He pointed to his success as vaccines minister and progress running education.
He defended Mr Johnson’s integrity, saying he was right to apologise for appointing Chris Pincher, the MP accused of sexual assault who has brought the latest sleaze scandal to Downing Street.
“We make decisions at warp speed and don’t get them all right,” said Mr Zahawi.
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He said that he would explore all the evidence to help get the economy back on track after “the equivalent” of a world war owing to the coronavirus pandemic, but his priority would be to bring down inflation that is running at 9.1 per cent and expected to hit double digits by the end of the year. He also said tax cuts would be on the table for families struggling to pay their bills in the current cost-of-living crisis.
The biggest tax cut in a decade comes into force today, £330 for 30 million people owing to a change in National Insurance adopted by his predecessor.
However, he did not offer much hope for hard-pressed workers hoping for significant pay rises, saying the government must be careful about public sector pay “so inflation is not fuelled, causing even deeper problems”.
He said he would stick by his pledge to teachers to give a 9 per cent rise to new starters.
From refugee to the UK government
Born in Iraq to a Kurdish family, Mr Zahawi arrived in the UK at the age of 9, when his parents fled the regime of Saddam Hussein.
He has described the difficulty he had adapting as he grew up in London, especially his struggles with the English language and bullies at school.
The young Nadhim spent much of his time playing football, studying maths and science, and horse riding.
It was not until he began studying chemical engineering at University College London that he developed an interest in politics and became actively involved with the Conservative Party.
“They just looked reasonable and actually they were very pleasant and talked about things like opportunity and freedom — stuff that resonated with me,” he says of his fellow conservative students.
“I just thought, ‘those are my values’.”
He has often said his own past deeply influenced his view of Britain and he recently spoke of the debt he owed poet Philip Larkin as he improved his English as a teenager.
After working in junior ministerial roles in the education and business departments, Mr Zahawi was appointed minister in charge of the Covid-19 vaccine campaign in 2020.
In 2021, Mr Johnson promoted him to the Cabinet to run education policy.