Nadhim Zahawi: how I escaped Saddam’s Iraq

The Education Secretary has come a long way since his Baghdad schooldays

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

One night in December 1977, when Saddam Hussein was deputy leader of Iraq and already the strongman of the government, Nadhim Zahawi’s father was tipped off that Saddam’s secret police were after him. Zahawi, a Kurd working in Baghdad, decided to leave right away. He phoned the office to say that he was travelling to the north of the country for work and quickly set about his escape. The Baathist secret police did come for him that night, but by the time they arrived at his house, he was at Baghdad International Airport with a ticket to London.

An 11-year-old Nadhim nervously saw him off at the airport with his mother and sister – it would have looked suspicious if the family hadn’t so they stood at a viewing platform where you could see passengers walk to the aircraft and go up the steps. It meant he was watching when the plane was intercepted by the military. ‘Just before take-off, an army truck drove to the plane,’ Zahawi says. ‘We were all terrified. We were convinced they were going to bring him down off the plane: that’s what they do. But they brought a different man down.’ It was the man sitting behind Zahawi’s father. Shortly after this escape, the rest of the family flew out and met him in London.

This is the story Zahawi hinted at when winning ‘Minister to Watch’ at The Spectator’s Parliamentarian awards last year. ‘When I stand in the mirror shaving,’ he told guests, ‘I have to pinch myself. How did a boy from Iraq, who ended up on these shores at the age of 11 without a word of English, become Secretary of State for Education?’ He didn’t say any more than that – this is the first time he has told the full story about his journey to the UK.

Iraq in the late 1970s, he says, was a terrible, paranoid place. ‘That’s how mind control is: you create fear between neighbours, fear between parents and children. Teachers would even encourage pupils to say what you talked about last night with your family – just in case the family were being negative about the [Baathist] party.’ His dad was no activist, he said, ‘but being Kurdish, you’re always under suspicion because the Kurds historically wanted to separate’.

When the family (who arrived as migrants, not refugees) was reunited in London, Zahawi found it ‘genuinely hard’ to integrate at first. ‘When you can’t speak the language, you sit and hide in the back of the class.’ He attended the comprehensive Holland Park School in west London – now nicknamed the ‘socialist’s Eton’. It was brutal back then. ‘There were these three kids who decided to chase me around Holland Park, picked me up and put me in the pond upside down. At that point I was thinking: where am I? It was horrific. But I look back now and I think how lucky I was. I’ve got second cousins who ended up on the front line in the Iraq-Iran war, life completely destroyed.’

Zahawi had to educate himself. ‘I couldn’t make any sense of the Telegraph because my English wasn’t good enough. But I started reading the Sun, and it actually helped me improve my reading.’ Later on he was admitted to UCL and his interest in politics was unintentionally kindled by a student selling Socialist Worker. ‘All I did was say: “No, thank you.” He took offence and decided he was going to beat me up.’ After this, he said: ‘I went to find out what the other side thinks. It was called the Conservative Collegiate Forum.’ He quickly came round to this way of thinking – he cites Margaret Thatcher as the greatest prime minister (Tony Blair is his preferred Labour choice).

Zahawi became a Tory activist and during the Gulf War got involved in the successful campaign to persuade John Major to protect the Kurds with a no-fly zone. This introduced him to Jeffrey Archer, the novelist, who had taken up the Kurds’ cause. They stayed in touch and in the late 1990s, when Archer ran for mayor, Zahawi was enlisted to his campaign team, with perhaps the most formidable bunch of advisers ever put together for local politics.

‘Around the table, there were these young Conservatives – Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Tobias Ellwood, Adam Afriyie, Shailesh Vara, Robert Halfon and Kwasi Kwarteng.’ What did they have in common? They had all caught Lord Archer’s eye over the years. Somehow, this disgraced peer ended up selecting the stars of Boris Johnson’s government. Patel, like Zahawi, is from a family who came to the UK, in their case from Uganda, to escape persecution – now she’s making the policy on refugees.

When Archer’s campaign collapsed (he ended up in Belmarsh rather than City Hall), Zahawi got together with another aide, Stephan Shakespeare, and set up YouGov, an online opinion poll firm. It’s now worth £1.2 billion, and the Zahawi family has an estimated £100 million property empire. Reminders of this venture hang in his office today: three brightly coloured pieces by Derek Boshier, a Britpop artist, are behind his desk. ‘Stephan bought three pictures, I bought three, and we had them in our YouGov office. Wherever I go, I bring them with me.’

His high-flying career turned into a decade of political nothingness when he entered parliament in 2010; he was never part of the David Cameron set. ‘Do you know why I was in the cold?’ he asks. ‘Because along with Jesse Norman, I led the rebellion against House of Lords reform. I figured that I didn’t come to this great country to vandalise its unwritten constitution and saddle it with Nick Clegg’s 450 senators. All that power, with no accountability, would have been a disaster. To create a system that is as gridlocked as America’s? Madness.’

By his own admission, Zahawi was pretty bad at climbing Westminster’s greasy pole. He was known as a Boris Johnson supporter but ended up backing Dominic Raab (the son of a Jewish refugee) in the 2019 leadership election. His break came when he was made vaccines minister – and then oversaw what turned out to be a stunning success, mainly driven by Kate Bingham’s vaccine taskforce. Six months ago he was made Education Secretary, and given the job of trying to fix the mess caused by lockdown. The hope was that he’d bring the vaccine can-do spirit to repairing education. So how will he do it?

At this stage, his story starts to sound less like a thriller and more like an accountancy handbook. ‘The lesson I brought from vaccines – something I am totally passionate about, but won’t get many headlines until I deliver it – is that data and transparency is your ally when you’re trying to reform or improve complex systems.’ By which he means that he’ll publish all the vital figures: on the skills gap, on damage done in lockdown, on exam results, in the belief that once problems are exposed, they are more likely to be solved. ‘I will be the evidence-led secretary of state,’ he says.

More data, he thinks, can move things beyond the Blair-era target of getting students into university, by asking, for example, if going to university did them much good. ‘What’s the dropout rate? Where do they end up afterwards? Did they get a job that is equivalent to the investment they’ve made by borrowing the money to get there? Let’s publish all that because, actually, you create a better system.’

When asked which previous education secretary most inspires him, he names Nicky Morgan – citing how he wants to ‘complete that journey’ on mass academisation, something that will soon be laid out in his schools white paper (due by the end of the month). He’s asked her about what went wrong: how to avoid the situation she found herself in in 2016 when the government had to U-turn on plans to force schools to become academies by 2022. He wants to turn more primaries into academies too.

In recent months, Zahawi has been talked up as a potential ‘dark horse’ leadership candidate – his supporters point to his vaccine role, his decent approval ratings and his back-story. When asked whether he has any hopes for No. 10 one day, he simply responds that his ambition is ‘to be the best secretary of state for education’, which isn’t quite a denial. But Zahawi argues that his current boss won’t be going anywhere anytime soon – then launches into a long defence of Johnson, particularly in relation to Ukraine.

‘We were the first European country to send in lethal defensive weaponry – absolutely the first country – and that was against some of the advice. Everybody’s followed through behind us,’ he says. ‘The nation is seeing him again make the big calls – they like that quality. With my old pollster’s hat on, the nation thinks that Boris has got a lot more to offer.’ And what about those No. 10 suitcases of booze in lockdown? ‘The partygate stuff cut through. No doubt. But people can see that he gets the big calls right.’

But still with his pollster’s hat on, has he ever known a prime minister to recover from such awful approval ratings? At the last count, Johnson had the worst figures of any PM since Black Wednesday. ‘If you look at the national polls, we are ten points behind nationally. But that is not moving to Keir Starmer! Force a choice, take out the don’t-knows, we’re about three points behind,’ Zahawi replies.

If the Ukraine crisis is really to mark a turning point for Johnson, his response needs to match the moment. But as the number of refugees from Ukraine runs into the millions – with people fleeing circumstances just as dangerous as those which brought the Zahawis to Britain – the government is only taking people with family members here or who are sponsored by charities or individuals (the rules of the latter scheme are yet to be published). Does Zahawi think the government should do more?

‘I think we’ve struck the right balance, because it’s right to have some checks as to who we’re settling here,’ he says. ‘I want to go further and see how much more we can do to support the Ukrainians who will be refugees in neighbouring countries.’ What about those trying to come here? At the last count, just 300 Ukrainians refugees had been given visas. ‘I think you’re going to see a couple of hundred thousand Ukrainians be settled – and welcomed – in this country,’ he says. If so, it will be the biggest influx of people fleeing persecution in living memory. But as the Raabs, Patels and Zahawis have shown, this is – now more than ever – part of Britain’s story.

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