The Daily Telegraph
Zahawi moves up a grade after his victorious vaccine rollout scheme
Covid jab minister reaps reward with promotion to Education Secretary and another sensitive brief
NADHIM ZAHAWI, the new Education Secretary, is reaping the political reward of organising a triumphant vaccine rollout. But his promotion will see him propelled from one highly sensitive Covid battleground to another.
His predecessor, Gavin Williamson, was widely blamed for presiding over a series of mishaps during the pandemic, from endless classroom disruption and confusion over rules for masks and jabs, to examination results being delivered by algorithm before being recalled. It was a sequence that saw him lose the confidence of teachers, parents and, as it turned out, the Prime Minister. In satisfaction polls of Conservative Party members, he routinely came last.
By contrast, the man who replaces him has fostered a track record of buccaneering achievement, built on energy, supreme self-confidence, and an eye for detail. Boris Johnson regards him as a public servant with a private businessman’s instincts. Indeed, Zahawi has mixed entrepreneurialism with politics since co-founding the polling company Yougov in 2000 with Stephan Shakespeare, whom he met through the Tory deputy chairman and London mayoral candidate Jeffrey Archer.
However, the task of devising and rolling out the vast vaccination programme was both far bigger, and had far more riding on it, than anything he had done before.
The 54-year-old has repeatedly likened the scale of the challenge to building the “equivalent of the infrastructure of a national supermarket chain” in a matter of months, and then “growing it by 20 per cent every week”.
As that infrastructure did grow, and he successfully implemented a vaccine programme admired and emulated around the world, Zahawi became a trusted face, both within and outside government, even as confidence in Williamson’s performance slumped.
Last night, hours after he was sacked, the former education secretary defended his record, writing: “Despite the challenges of the global pandemic, I’m particularly proud of the transformational reforms I’ve led in post-16 education, in further education colleges, our skills agenda, apprenticeships and more.”
But in the public eye he will be remembered for less worthy achievements – such as the pointless and destructive row with the footballer Marcus Rashford over free school meals in holidays, or the system of classroom bubbles that routinely disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of students as single cases forced whole classes to isolate. Towards the end of the last academic year, some schools were more empty than full.
Above all, it was the 2020 exam debacle that appeared to make Williamson’s demotion – or outright sacking – a matter of time. The country watched as schools policy appeared to be constructed on the hoof, with grades lurching up and down and children’s futures wreathed in chaos. When his most senior civil servant went, it seemed Mr Williamson’s own time might be up.
Still he clung on but, in truth, and despite his protests last night, he never had the chance to drive through significant reforms, so sustained was the crisis-fighting he had to perform.
Will his successor have that chance? As the child of Iraqi refugees, whose family lost everything when his father literally bet the house on an American firm which went bankrupt, Zahawi is
‘By far the grandest step in Nadhim Zahawi’s political rise owes everything to a political bet that has paid off handsomely’
keenly aware of the stakes. “Many of my Left-leaning friends will say you can’t tackle education until you tackle the challenge of poverty,” he once said. “I see it the other way round, you don’t tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education.”
Although he had attended private schools, his family’s financial calamity, when he was 18, put him on the brink of curtailing his academic ambitions.
He was about to become a minicab driver when his mother pawned her jewellery so he could go to University College London to study chemical engineering.
He has spoken of the shattering effect of losing everything, saying his father would not emerge from his room for a month. Yet the essence of what he calls his father’s “mad entrepreneur” spirit has undoubtedly endured. Having cofounded Yougov, today Zahawi is one of the wealthiest MPS in the house, and lives in Belgravia with his wife Lana, who runs a property portfolio worth tens of millions of pounds.
In part, he owes his political start to Archer. They first met in the early 1990s, when he helped the Tory grandee with his controversial “Simple Truth” campaign in aid of Iraqi Kurds. In turn Archer helped Zahawi gain a seat on Wandsworth borough council, where he stayed for 12 years until 2006. It was only a decade ago, in 2010, that he was first elected to Parliament, for the seat of Stratford-upon-avon.
Though he joined the No 10 policy unit three years later, he had to wait until 2018 for his first junior role – though, perhaps crucially, it was as schools minister. It was quickly followed by another, this time as parliamentary under-secretary for industry.
While his father’s big gamble was a disaster, the latest and by far the grandest step in Nadhmi Zahawi’s political rise owes everything to a political bet that has paid off handsomely. Last year, Boris Johnson called on Zahawi, his friend of almost 20 years dating back to the days when the prime minister was editor of The Spectator, to run the vaccine rollout despite him being a relative unknown. It was a job of awesome size and significance given the lives at stake. Zahawi called it “the biggest job I will ever do for the country that has given me and my family everything”.
But it was also a punt and the outcome was critical to Johnson, at the time lambasted for both draconian lockdowns and soaring infection rates.
As the rollout became a triumphant procession, Zahawi’s stocked soared.
Now his energy, enthusiasm and attention to detail will all be required once again. His challenge will be to secure the recovery from Covid-19 in schools, ensuring that classes are not disrupted once again by any autumn or winter spikes. Then he must begin the long process of rebuilding the system in a job where, unlike his last, every pound is accounted for by the Treasury.
Shattered and angry teachers will need to be won over, their prickly unions – already calling for extra cash in next month’s spending review – handled with care and children returned to an environment that isn’t just coping, but can give the promise of elevation afforded to Zahawi – from poverty to riches and even government.