Who is Nadhim Zahawi? Millionaire UK minister who could be brought down by tax scandal

Zahawi is believed to be one of the richest politicians in the House of Commons

Britain's minister without portfolio and Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi. EPA
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British Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi, who is in hot water over his tax affairs, is a multimillionaire former businessman who had a meteoric rise to political power.

Arriving in the UK as a child refugee unable to speak English, he has a compelling story that saw him rise to become a successful entrepreneur and politician.

Born in Iraq to a Kurdish family, Mr Zahawi arrived in England as an 11-year-old after his parents fled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

He grew up in Sussex and studied chemical engineering at University College London.

His financial affairs have been in the spotlight amid claims he avoided tax, using an offshore company registered in Gibraltar to hold shares in YouGov, a company he cofounded. He denies the allegations.

He recently admitted that he paid what HM Revenue and Customs said “was due” after the tax authority “disagreed about the exact allocation” of founder shares in the firm held by his father.

The tax repayment was reportedly part of a seven-figure sum.

Nadhim Zahawi - in pictures

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Mr Zahawi’s error was “careless” and not deliberate.

The embattled Tory chairman released a statement on Saturday to “address some of the confusion about my finances”.

But that raised further questions, including whether Mr Zahawi negotiated the dispute while he was serving as chancellor of the exchequer.

He did not disclose the size of the settlement — reported to be £4.8 million ($5.6m) including a 30 per cent penalty — or confirm whether he paid a fine.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is now facing questions over how much he knew about Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs when he appointed him as minister without portfolio in the Cabinet Office and Conservative Party chairman.

The Sun on Sunday reported that Mr Zahawi had been due to receive a knighthood in the new year’s honours list but was later blocked because of concerns over his tax situation.

Mr Zahawi is believed to be one of the richest politicians in the House of Commons.

Who is Nadhim Zahawi?

Mr Zahawi came from a relatively prominent Kurdish family in Iraq 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.

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.

In 1978, Nadhim, then 11, arrived in the UK without speaking a word of English.

The family lived in Sussex and Mr Zahawi was privately educated at Kings College School in West London.

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.

He later graduated from University College London where he studied chemical engineering.

It was not until he began studying at UCL that he developed an interest in politics and became actively involved with the Conservative Party.

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 and entered Parliament in 2010 as the Tory MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

He spent nearly eight years on the backbenches, gaining media attention in 2013 for claiming expenses for heating stables for his horses.

Getting his first junior minister role in the Department for Education under Theresa May in 2018, Mr Zahawi soon rose up the ranks to become Education Secretary.

But it was when he was promoted to help lead the government’s Covid-19 vaccine programme in 2020 that he rose to prominence.

Mr Zahawi was appointed chancellor by Boris Johnson last summer, hours after Mr Sunak’s dramatic resignation, and the day before the scandal-plagued prime minister was forced to quit.

Questions are swirling as to whether Mr Zahawi negotiated the dispute with HMRC during his two-month stint in the job, when he was in charge of the country’s taxation system.

He made a doomed attempt to replace Mr Johnson in the Tory leadership race.

When Liz Truss emerged victorious, she appointed Mr Zahawi Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

After her premiership imploded, he initially announced he would be backing Mr Johnson to return as prime minister, before switching allegiance to Mr Sunak on the same day, after the former leader said he would not be entering the contest.

Updated: January 23, 2023, 10:22 AM