Nadhim Zahawi's remarkable rise from child refugee to the UK's latest millionaire chancellor

·Freelance Writer
·6-min read
Nadhim Zahawi was appointed chancellor on Tuesday night. (PA/Getty)
Nadhim Zahawi was appointed chancellor on Tuesday night. (PA/Getty)

Nadhim Zahawi has been promoted from education secretary to chancellor following Rishi Sunak’s shock resignation on Tuesday night.

Sunak quit, alongside Sajid Javid as health secretary, in a move that came just as Boris Johnson was being forced into a humiliating apology to address the row over scandal-hit former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher.

Zahawi was quickly appointed the new chancellor and is now the second most powerful member of the government, tasked with tackling a growing cost-of-living crisis.

He was tasked with delivering the COVID vaccine programme in his role as vaccines minister, which was widely seen as a success.

He replaced Gavin Williamson as education secretary in September last year and — just nine months later — has been elevated once again to become the second millionaire chancellor in a row after Sunak.

It marks a remarkable political rise for Zahawi – and one which is also mirrored by the success he has achieved from humble beginnings.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 05: Former Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, leaves at Downing Street on July 5, 2022 in London, England. Minister for Health, Sajid Javid, resigned from the Government this evening closely followed by the Chancellor of The Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. This morning, former senior civil servant Lord McDonald, indicated the Prime Minister had lied over the case of Chris Pincher MP and his history of sexual assaults. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Nadhim Zahawi becomes the second millionaire chancellor in a row. (Getty)

Where was he born?

Zahawi was born on 2 June, 1967, in Baghdad, Iraq, to a Kurdish family. He arrived in the UK in 1976 at the age of nine, having fled Iraq with his family to escape the early years of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Recounting the family’s reasons for leaving the country, Zahawi told the Stratford Herald last year that Iraq had become “increasingly unstable”, with tensions high between the Iraqi regime and the Kurdish community as Hussein sought to suppress the Kurdish community.

Watch: Zahawi says he didn't threaten to quit as he calls for unity

He said: “It was clear to my family Iraq would not be safe under his leadership and that is when we decided we had to flee to the UK.”

"It was a huge sacrifice for us to leave our home country, as it is for anyone, however, I cannot be sure I would be here today if we hadn’t, especially given the egregious genocidal campaign carried out against the Kurdish people in the decades that followed."

Zahawi, who was unable to speak English when he left Iraq, said he suffered bullying after arriving in the UK, telling Sky News that his first experience in the country was being “chased around the park as a sort of entertainment for bigger boys”.

Where did he go to school?

Zahawi attended the comprehensive Holland Park School in west London before moving to the private Ibstock Place School in south-west London.

He later moved to the independent King’s College School in Wimbledon before achieving a chemical engineering degree at University College London.

Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi addresses the Local Government Association Annual Conference, at Harrogate Convention Centre, North Yorkshire. Picture date: Thursday June 30, 2022.
Nadhim Zahawi has kept his personal life away from his public life. (PA)

Who is his wife?

Very little is known of the chancellor’s wife, Lana Zahawi, with the secretive couple not releasing her age or details of when and where they were married.

In a list of ministers’ interests, Zahawi has previously declared his wife “is director of several limited companies, including Zahawi & Zahawi Ltd, which own commercial and retail property”.

The couple have three children.

How much is he worth?

Believed to be one of the richest politicians in the House of Commons, estimates of Zahawi’s wealth range from £30m to up to £100m.

A large part of his wealth is put down to co-founding polling firm YouGov in 2000, which he floated on the stock exchange in 2005.

Nadhim Zahawi has faced some political controversies during his time in government. (PA)
Nadhim Zahawi has faced some political controversies during his time in government. (PA)

In 2017 the Guardian reported that Zahawi had property worth more than £25m, while The Mirror reported last year that he had a “property empire” totalling £100m.

It was also reported in the Guardian that Zahawi has also spent much of his parliamentary career working as chief strategy officer for Gulf Keystone Petroleum, which paid him up to £30,000 a month for his work.

Sunak's tenure as chancellor was marked by accusations from critics that his enormous wealth made him unable to understand the challenges faced by millions on or below the poverty line struggling to deal with the cost of living crisis.

Whether Zahawi has to handle similar accusations remains to be seen, but he is regarded by many in the Conservative Party has a very able political operator and a strong communicator.

Political controversies

Zahawi became an MP in 2010 but his time in parliament has not been without controversy.

In 2013 he was caught up in an expenses scandal after it emerged he had billed taxpayers for the electricity supply to his stables.

Zahawi said he was “mortified” by the error on his second home and paid back the £5,822 claim.

In 2016, he voted against a Labour amendment that would have required private landlords to make their homes "fit for human habitation”.

Parliament's register of interests showed that Zahawi was one of 72 Conservative MPs who voted against the amendment who derived an income from renting out property.

Nadhim Zahawi speaks at a media briefing on coronavirus while he was vaccines secretary in June 2021. (AP)
Nadhim Zahawi speaks at a media briefing on coronavirus while he was vaccines secretary in June 2021. (AP)

Zahawi also made unwanted headlines when he was found to have attended a men-only Presidents Club fundraiser in 2018, where hostesses were subjected to groping and lewd comments, which he later condemned.

In October 2020, he was accused by Labour MP Tulip Siddiq of misleadingly suggesting that research had shown parents "actually prefer to pay a modest amount, £1 or £2", instead of receiving free school meals, in a debate over extending free school meals during school holidays.

His time as vaccines minister was also not without controversy after the government announced plans to introduce COVID vaccine passports, which Zahawi had previously described as "discriminatory".

And earlier this year, Zahawi revealed that his wife had smacked their nine-year-old daughter as he rejected calls for a smacking ban in England.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi answers questions from year 5 pupils after reading the commemorative Jubilee book during a visit to Manor Park Primary School in Sutton. Picture date: Friday May 13, 2022. (Photo by Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images)
Nadhim Zahawi, during a visit to Manor Park Primary School in Sutton in May, was appointed education secretary in 2021. (PA/Getty)

How he climbed the political ladder

Zahawi was elected the MP for Stratford-on-Avon in 2010 and became a member of the Number 10 Policy Unit – which provides policy advice to the PM – in 2013.

Following a role on the foreign affairs select committee, Zahawi was appointed a junior minister at the Department for Education in 2018, and the Business Department in 2019.

In November 2020 Boris Johnson made him the first ever vaccines minister, tasked with delivering the COVID jab to the UK, before becoming the education secretary in September 2021.

Now Zahawi inherits a raft of cost of living problems as he takes on his role of chancellor, with the burden falling on him to deliver on his leader’s promise to “help people through the current difficult times”.