‘My mistakes have been mine’: Nadhim Zahawi, the former Tory rising star now on his way out of Westminster

Nadhim Zahawi, the MP for Stratford-on-Avon, has announced he will not stand at the next general election, saying the time is right for a “a new, energetic Conservative” to take over in his West Midlands seat.

Once touted as a rising star of the party, he was praised for his role as vaccines minister during the rollout of jabs during the Covid-19 pandemic and by July 2022 had been promoted to chancellor by then-prime minister Boris Johnson.

But by the beginning of 2023 , he had been cast out of frontline politics after being sacked by the now Tory leader Rishi Sunak after an ethics inquiry found he had broken the ministerial code several times over his tax affairs.

“My mistakes have been mine”, Mr Zahawi said in a statement on Thursday, announcing his intention to step down as an MP.

Mr Zahawi, born into an influential Kurdish family, came to the UK fleeing persecution when they fell foul of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

He said he arrived on the shores of Britain unable to speak a word of English, but later rose to the top of the business world before entering politics.

But like so many who have gone before him, Mr Zahawi, whose reputation as a clear and effective communicator saw him rise to the top of the Conservative Party and government, exited his most recent high-profile position under a cloud.

He was sacked by Rishi Sunak as Tory Party chairman after an ethics inquiry found he had broken the ministerial code several times over his tax affairs.

The investigation was launched after it emerged that Mr Zahawi had cut a multimillion-pound deal to settle a tax dispute with HMRC while briefly serving as Boris Johnson’s chancellor, having been appointed to the role in the dying days of the former prime minister’s time in office.

The estimated £4.8 million bill included a penalty when he was ultimately the minister in charge of the tax office.

Mr Zahawi had been previously praised for helping roll out the coronavirus vaccine programme, which ended punishing lockdown restrictions. His political stock was rising fast, helping him secure the chancellor and then party chairmanship roles.

File photo: Nadhim Zahawi previously served as chancellor and education secretary (AFP via Getty Images)
File photo: Nadhim Zahawi previously served as chancellor and education secretary (AFP via Getty Images)

Born in 1967, he grew up in Sussex and went on to study chemical engineering at University College London, before following in his father’s footsteps as an entrepreneur.

Mr Zahawi met the then-prominent and later disgraced Tory politician Jeffrey Archer while campaigning for Iraqi exiles who wanted the overthrow of Hussain.

Lord Archer hailed the young man as a “born organiser”, once telling the BBC: “If you said ‘I need six taxis, three aeroplanes and a double-decker bus, all in 30 minutes, he went and did it.”

He put Mr Zahawi’s talents to use during his bid to become London mayor in 1999. Lord Archer, however, was forced to abort that campaign in scandal.

Two years later, Lord Archer was jailed for four years having been convicted of perjury and perverting the course of justice.

In 2000, Mr Zahawi founded YouGov with another alumni of the Archer campaign, Stephan Shakespeare.

They would grow the polling company into a hugely successful one, and would float it on the stock exchange after five years.

Shares held by Balshore, the Gibraltar-registered Zahawi family trust, were sold off for an estimated £27 million and it was the mixing of family and business that led to the HMRC dispute.

He is linked to a property empire valued at more than £58 million, according to records at Companies House, including a townhouse in London’s lavish Belgravia.

Following on from his successful time in business, Mr Zahawi stood down from YouGov to run for parliament, winning the safe Conservative seat of Stratford-on-Avon.

Mr Zahawi is known as being one of the richest MPs but he was forced to apologise in 2013 for claiming parliamentary expenses for electricity for his stables and a mobile home.

He said he had “made a mistake” which he was “mortified” about, and he pledged to pay back any money that was wrongly claimed.

Then, as children and families minister in 2018, it emerged he attended a men-only Presidents Club charity dinner that went on to be at the centre of allegations of sexual harassment.

He was reprimanded by No 10 but said he left early and “did not see any of the horrific events”, which he said he was “shocked” by.

The following year he was a junior minister at the business department, which is where he was when the coronavirus pandemic began in late 2019.

It is another period that is under scrutiny. David Cameron contacted him as he was seeking government loans for the since-collapsed Greensill Capital.

Mr Zahawi told officials, according to The Times, that he had not exchanged WhatsApps with the Conservative former prime minister. It later emerged messages had been deleted from Mr Zahawi’s phone.

Covid-19 was straining the nation and Mr Johnson looked to his old ally to roll out the vaccine programme in 2020.

Mr Zahawi described the role of vaccines minister as “the most important job I’ll ever do”, and his handling was widely seen as a massive success.

Mr Johnson also looked to him to replace Sir Gavin Williamson, who was this time sacked as education secretary over an exams fiasco.

In need of a chancellor after Mr Sunak’s resignation helped trigger Mr Johnson’s own downfall, he appointed Mr Zahawi to lead the Treasury.

Mr Zahawi made a failed attempt to win the party leadership during his two months as chancellor – a period in which he settled his tax dispute with HMRC.

Under scrutiny while trying to succeed Mr Johnson in No 10 in July 2022, Mr Zahawi told Sky News he was “clearly being smeared” about his tax and insisted: “I’ve always declared my taxes, I’ve paid my taxes in the UK.”

A political survivor, he became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster during Liz Truss’s fleeting leadership, playing a key role in the preparations for the Queen’s funeral in September, before Mr Sunak made him party chairman in his new administration.

The trickle of stories about Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs became a torrent when The Sun On Sunday revealed he paid a seven-figure sum to HMRC.

Nadhim Zahawi has revealed he will not stand at the next election (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Archive)
Nadhim Zahawi has revealed he will not stand at the next election (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Archive)

Mr Sunak first defended his minister, saying he had given a “full” account. But then the Guardian revealed his settlement included a 30 per cent penalty, taking the estimated total close to £5 million.

Under intense pressure, Mr Zahawi said it was a “careless and not deliberate” error linked to YouGov founder shares given to his father.

This changed the prime minister’s mind. Saying that he believes there were then “questions that need answering”, Mr Sunak ordered his ministerial standards adviser Sir Laurie Magnus to investigate.

Mr Zahawi said he welcomed a chance to give his account to Sir Laurie, insisting he was “confident” and had “acted properly throughout”.

Sir Laurie’s four-page report, setting out in detail the circumstances of Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs and communications with HMRC and the prime minister, found that the Tory chairman had shown “insufficient regard for the general principles of the ministerial code and the requirements in particular, under the seven principles of public life, to be honest, open and an exemplary leader through his own behaviour”.

In a letter to Mr Zahawi, the prime minister said that, following the investigation “it is clear that there has been a serious breach of the ministerial code”.

But Mr Sunak also said Mr Zahawi “should be extremely proud” of his “wide-ranging achievements in government over the last five years”.

In a letter to the prime minister following his sacking, Mr Zahawi did not explicitly mention the findings of the ethics inquiry into his tax affairs.

He said: “It has been, after being blessed with my loving family, the privilege of my life to serve in successive governments and make what I believe to have been a tangible difference to the country I love.”

Announcing he would stand down as an MP on Thursday, Mr Zahawi wrote in a statement on X that he felt immensely privileged to have served as an MP and in government.

He vowed to continue serving his constituents with “dedication and determination” until the next election, which must take place by January 2025 at the latest.