After a dramatic 48-hours in Westminster last July triggered by the shock resignations of then-chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson was finally forced to step down as Britain’s prime minister.
After Owen Paterson, the Partygate saga, the Jimmy Savile slur, those stalled Rwanda deportation flights, boos at the Queen’s Jubilee, the vote of confidence, Lord Geidt’s exit, two by-election thrashings, party chair Oliver Dowden’s departure and the particularly rotten Chris Pincher scandal, the “greased piglet” finally slipped off the podium.
The fact that Mr Johnson was able to weather that final controversy as long as he did was almost entirely down to one man: Nadhim Zahawi.
The then-education secretary was summoned to Downing Street at 9pm on the evening of Tuesday 5 July, met with the prime minister for around an hour and duly emerged as chancellor.
Moving almost as quickly as his boss, he wasted no time in denying rumours that he threatened to join the exodus unless Mr Johnson gave him the top job ahead of then-foreign secretary Liz Truss.
He was out early the following morning doing the media rounds and pledging to be the “evidence-led chancellor” Britain needed.
Mr Zahawi placed the emphasis on “delivery” as he took on an economy in dire straits, mired in a cost of living crisis that only threatened to get worse, insisting that “fiscal discipline’ is what was needed to “bear down on the blight of inflation”.
Asked by Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether he was the man to introduce the bold new tax cuts Mr Sunak had opposed, the latter’s successor said that everything was up for review and that he would “leave nothing off the table”.
His Labour opposite number Rachel Reeves scoffed at the idea, pointing out that he had voted for all 15 of the government’s tax rises introduced over the last two years.
Forced to defend Mr Johnson once more, Mr Zahawi said that the PM had been right to apologise for appointing Mr Pincher – who resigned as deputy chief whip after admitting to groping two male colleagues while drunk – and insisted his own ambitions ended at the door of No 11.
Confronted with two more resignations live on air as children’s minister Will Quince and parliamentary private secretary to the Department for Transport Laura Trott both stepped down, Mr Zahawi told Today : “All I would say to colleagues is people don’t vote for divided teams. We have to come together.”
When Mr Robinson asked him what it felt like to have risen to the eminent position of chancellor of the exchequer having arrived in the UK as a nine-year-old refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq unable to speak English, Mr Zahawi was almost moved to tears.
While that is a touching story indeed, his tenure as Mr Johnson’s right-hand man proved short-lived.
He was ousted as chancellor in favour of Kwasi Kwarteng as soon as Ms Truss was announced as the winner of the Conservative Party leadership contest in early September, only for that duo’s ambitious “mini-Budget” promising “growth, growth, growth” to prove a humiliating disaster of historic proportions and lead Mr Sunak to No 10 after all after fewer than 50 days of “Trussonomics”.
Mr Zahawi ended 2022 as his party’s chairman and a minister without portfolio, only to find himself back in the headlines in January 2023 when his tax affairs came under the spotlight, a scandal that would finally force his own defenestration.
Born in Baghdad on 2 June 1967, Mr Zahawi’s grandfather had been the governor of the Central Bank of Iraq from May 1959 to November 1960, his father a businessman-entrepreneur and his mother a dentist.
But, as members of the persecuted Kurdish minority, they were forced to flee in 1976 after Hussein came to power, finding a new home in London, where the teenage Nadhim learned the language by reading the poetry of Philip Larkin.
He attended Holland Park School, Ibstock Place School and King’s College School before going on to study chemical engineering at University College London.
However, he almost did not make it to higher education after the family was struck by disaster when his father invested all of their savings in a business called Air Knife, a venture hoping to reinvent road construction.
“In mad entrepreneur fashion, my father rang my mum and said, ‘This is going to be a huge success’,” he recalled in a 2014 interview with The Independent.
“He remortgaged our home, put everything into this thing. Of course you know how this story ends, the company went bankrupt and the bank took our home and everything except one thing: we had a Vauxhall Opel Senator car that was in my mother’s name so they couldn’t take it.
“I had to make a choice whether I went to university or become a cab driver to put food on the table. We had nothing, and had to go on housing benefit and income support. For about a month my dad wouldn’t leave the bedroom because he was so distraught.
“When you have that level of breakdown, of failure, it really is like a vortex, and our biggest challenge was to get him out of the room and get him to have a shave, go out, and find work.”
He has suggested this experience led him to become a Conservative, convinced that poverty was a “trap” that only education could lead an individual clear of.
“Many of my left-leaning friends will say you can’t tackle education until you tackle the challenge of poverty,” he said. “I see it the other way round, you don’t tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education.”
After graduation, he reportedly began a business career selling T-shirts and Teletubbies merchandise before meeting Jeffrey Archer in 1991 at an event at which he was campaigning to draw attention to the rights of fellow Kurdish refugees escaping the Gulf War.
Lord Archer recognised his skills as an organiser and helped him win a seat as a Conservative councillor Putney in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which he served for three terms between 1994 and 2006.
During that time, Mr Zahawi also helped run Lord Archer’s failed bid for London Mayor in 1998 with Stephan Shakespeare, with whom he subsequently co-founded the successful polling company YouGov.
In 2004, he married Lana Saib, with whom he now has three children.
Following a decade at YouGov and in the aftermath of the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, Mr Zahawi was chosen as the Conservative candidate for Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, which he won in 2010 and has held ever since.
Proud to represent the hometown of William Shakespeare, he nevertheless experienced a degree of racism while campaigning in the Tory heartlands.
His friend Mr Javid told a BBC radio documentary: “I remember him saying to me he was handing out leaflets on the street somewhere and someone had screwed it up in front of him and said that if you were on fire I wouldn’t waste my p*** on you.”
During his time as an MP, he co-wrote a book about the 2008 global financial crisis with one Matt Hancock, entitled Masters of Nothing: How the Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature (2011), and has won a reputation for competence during his tenure as minister for vaccines during the pandemic and more recently as education secretary.
However, his judgement has not always been infallible.
A keen showjumper in his private life, he would – ironically, given the circumstances of his election – be caught up in an expenses scandal himself in 2013 when it emerged he had claimed £5,822 to pay for the heating of the stables in which he kept his horses, forcing Mr Zahawi to apologise and repay £4,000.
He has also had reason to regret his advocacy for Mr Johnson after backing him for the Tory leadership in 2016 by saying: “You only need to spend a few minutes in the company of Boris and a voter to understand his natural abilities, and the chance he presents to help restore the image of politicians with a cynical public.
“He can unite our country. Boris is not just a personality who people like, but a real leader.”
Subsequently rowing back on that, he voted for Dominic Raab following the ousting of Theresa May in 2019, only for the former’s campaign to skid into a ditch.
He returned to Mr Johnson’s affections thereafter through his willingness to take on media interviews and defend the government’s position even in the worst of circumstances.
According to Conservative Home, Mr Zahawi enjoys a reputation as something of a wheeler-dealer and has been likened to Arthur Daley, George Cole’s character in the celebrated ITV series Minder (1979-94).
“He’d get you mangoes in the Antarctic and brussels sprouts in the desert,” Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, has said.
Given the manner in which 2023 has begun for Mr Zahawi, he may be inclined to regret that comparison.
As The Independent first reported the previous July following his appointment as chancellor, it emerged that the MP had been investigated by HMRC over his tax affairs and had since been forced to pay a fine of more than £1m on top of a £4.8m settlement.
The Tory chair had previously claimed reports of HMRC inquiries into his taxes were a “smear” and threatened this newspaper with legal action for broaching the subject before admitting he had settled the dispute, calling his error “careless”.
Mr Sunak has since asked his independent ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, to look into the case, saying: “Clearly there are questions that need answering.”
That did not prevent a number of senior Conservative figures calling on Mr Zahawi to resign, with influential peer Lord Hayward saying he should step aside at least until the inquiry concludes, warning that the saga could cause Tory popularity to “flatline” ahead of May’s local elections.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meanwhile used his appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday 25 January to label Mr Sunak “hopelessly weak” for failing to remove Mr Zahawi, saying it was “fairly obvious that someone who seeks to avoid tax can’t also be in charge of tax”.
“A prime minister overseeing chaos, overwhelmed at every turn… He can’t even deal with tax avoiders in his own Cabinet. Is he starting to wonder is this job is just too big for him?” Sir Keir asked, twisting the knife with obvious relish.
The following Saturday morning, Sir Laurie returned his verdict to Mr Sunak, reporting that Mr Zahawi had committed a “serious breach” of the standards expected of him by the Ministerial Code and that the he had missed several opportunities to come clean about the matter.
He was duly sacked by Mr Sunak and responded with a letter in which he stressed his pride in serving the government, citing his role in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout and the planning of the late Queen’s funeral as personal high points, but did not express a single word of regret or contrition and concluded by attacking the press over its reporting of the affair.