As Nadhim Zahawi set his sights on the vacancy at the top of the Conservative Party, the Iraqi-born entrepreneur has had to battle against “smears” on his private wealth.
Those ambitions were boosted last week when he was named Britain’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer and, after Boris Johnson resigned, a front-runner in the field of contenders for the crown.
The Tory leadership hopeful must first overcome the sudden rush of reports that his own personal finances have been under scrutiny by the authorities.
After it came to light that the National Crime Agency launched a secret inquiry into his finances in 2020, an Inland Revenue investigation into Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs has now reportedly begun. The chancellor called the claims a “smear” and maintains that he has “always declared my taxes — I’ve paid my taxes in the UK.”
The Iraqi-Kurd’s close ties to his homeland have also been a source of headlines over the years. Mr Zahawi has spent much of his parliamentary career working as adviser earning more than £1 million ($1m) from oil and gas company Gulf Keystone Petroleum, operator of one of the largest developments in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Until 2018, and while still a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Mr Zahawi was the chairman of Le Cercle, an exclusive transatlantic group that organises gatherings of powerful politicians, businesspeople and members of intelligence services to discuss foreign affairs.
While there is not an obligation to do so, the former children’s minister did not declare his chairmanship, something the former chairman of the Commission for Standards in Public Life said he found “disturbing” at the time.
One of parliament's richest MPs, Mr Zahawi is estimated to have a £100m property portfolio and has founded several business enterprises, including a horse-riding school with his wife.
In 2013, the former education minister landed in hot water during the expenses scandal when he was found to have wrongly claimed for electricity at his stables. At the time, he said he was “mortified” over his “genuine mistake” and repaid part of the almost £6,000 energy bill.
Trawling through the candidates’ compromising moments is part and parcel of any hard-nosed contest to become the next party leader.
But having fled persecution in his native Baghdad as a child and decades later, overseen the coronavirus vaccine campaign, Mr Zahawi, 55, knows a thing or two about overcoming challenges.
While touring broadcasting studios just after his appointment as chancellor last week, and before officially setting his sights on the government’s top job, he said he was “almost welling up” at being reminded of his upbringing and how far he had come.
Mr Zahawi has been addressing the UK’s mounting economic woes in his campaign. High inflation, low economic growth and a series of unresolved strikes are only some of the problems the former businessman will need to address as the country’s finance minister if he keeps the post after the party’s coming contest, or indeed as prime minister.
Born in Iraq in 1967 in the year the Baath political party retook power, Mr Zahawi came from a relatively prominent Kurdish family whose influence — and later safety — was threatened by the rise of Saddam Hussein to power in the 1970s.
Mr Zahawi’s grandfather had been the governor of the Central Bank of Iraq, his signature appearing on the country's banknotes, but the Zahawis’ sway eventually drew the ire of the ruling elite.
When Mr Zahawi's father, a businessman, was tipped-off that the secret police loyal to Saddam, then the deputy leader of Iraq, were coming for him, he quickly arranged his escape.
Telling his colleagues he was going on a trip to the north of the country, the Kurd instead packed his bags for Baghdad Airport.
Mr Zahawi has previously reflected on the “traumatic” moment when he watched the plane in which his father was travelling prepare to take-off, only for a military vehicle to approach the aircraft.
He said his mother was in tears and the family were terrified that the army was going to escort his father off the plane. Iraqi authorities instead took the man sitting behind his father and by the time the secret police had raided their home, Mr Zahawi’s father was long gone.
The harrowing experience is one the new chancellor says is “stamped on his memory”. He still recalls how hard it was to shake off the terror that permeated the family home in Baghdad, before the rest of the family left to join his father in London.
From Baghdad to Sussex
Once settled, Mr Zahawi’s father sent for his wife and children and in 1978, 11-year-old Nadhim arrived without speaking a word of English.
The family lived in Sussex and Mr Zahawi was privately educated at Kings College School in West London and later graduated from University College London where he studied chemical engineering.
He has described the difficulty he had adapting to life in the UK, especially his struggles with the English language and bullies at school, but the young Nadhim kept himself occupied with football, studying maths and science, and horse-riding.
As he was about to start university, however, the family’s fortunes turned dramatically when a business venture fell through and his father “lost everything” except for his brown Vauxhall car.
With the family’s one remaining asset, the school-leaver was about to take up a job as a taxi driver when his mother insisted he continue his education and pawned her gold jewellery to pay for it.
Business and politics
It was not until he began studying at UCL 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’.”
It would be some years before those values would send him to Downing Street but his early career as a businessman and entrepreneur may stand him in good stead in his current role as the UK’s finance minister.
After graduating, Mr Zahawi set up a firm selling Teletubbies merchandise — a company which attracted investment from the -Conservative politician and later convicted criminal Jeffrey Archer.
Lord Archer remembers the young Nadhim Zahawi being “a born organiser” who gets things done, in keeping with contemporary recognition that the chancellor is a “safe pair of hands”.
The entrepreneur’s connection to Lord Archer opened a few doors within the Conservative Party and in 1994, Mr Zahawi become a councillor in Wandsworth, south-west London, before making an unsuccessful bid for parliament three years later.
In 2000, he founded YouGov, a leading market research company which has since become famous for its political polling.
Having started life in an office in Mr Zahawi’s garden shed, YouGov now employs more than 400 people on three continents.
Mr Zahawi is said to have cashed in his shares in YouGov after floating the company on the London Stock Exchange in 2005 but new questions have been raised about the MP's declared interests following resurfaced revelations that a Gibraltar-based company called Balshore Investments, owned by Nadhim Zahawi’s father, still allegedly owned a stake in the company worth more than £20m until at least 2017.
In 2018, the polling company was accused of trying to influence a controversial independence referendum in Iraq the year before. YouGov closed its Kurdistan operations in 2021.
'The member for Shakespeare'
In January 2010, he stood down from the company he had founded to have another stab at becoming an MP, this time for Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
After winning the seat, Mr Zahawi was elected to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, and went on to co-author a book, Masters of Nothing, with former health minister Matt Hancock, about the human behaviour behind the banking crash.
Over the following years, the father-of-three took up a range of government appointments, including on the prime minister’s policy board in 2013, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2014 and as the prime minister’s apprenticeship adviser in 2015.
By 2018, Mr Zahawi was working in junior ministerial roles in the education and business departments before he was appointed minister in charge of the Covid-19 vaccine campaign in 2020.
Calling it at the time “the most important job I'll ever do”, Mr Zahawi, whose uncle died of Covid-19 in England, oversaw the programme for 11 months. He was later promoted by Mr Johnson to the Cabinet in 2021 to run education policy.
Mr Zahawi’s promotion to Chancellor of the Exchequer came with praise and renewed loyalty to his adopted country and the man who gave him the job.
“This country is a beacon of freedom and opportunity for the rest of the world and will long continue under this prime minister,” said Mr Zahawi in interviews immediately after his appointment.
Yet just a day later, the new minister joined a throng of MPs calling on Mr Johnson to “do the right thing” and resign before he went on to join nearly a dozen others looking to take over the party leadership.
From Baghdad to boardrooms to backbenches, the Iraqi-born British citizen has charted a course to becoming one of the most powerful men in UK politics.
“I pinch myself every morning, to wake up to think the 11-year-old who arrived on these shores and couldn’t speak a word of English is now the member for Shakespeare, for the heart of England and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in her majesty’s government,” he said. “This is the greatest country on Earth.”
Mr Zahawi is now hoping his “British success story” will persuade Conservative members to vote him into the highest post in Queen Elizabeth II's Cabinet.