Nadhim Zahawi is a man on a mission – and he isn’t in the mood for taking any prisoners in his desire to become the next prime minister.
In his first broadcast interview since entering the race, the new chancellor told Sky News exclusively how the boy from Baghdad has: nothing to hide with his tax affairs – even though he isn’t sure how rich he is; how loyalty is so important to him – despite his part in ousting the PM – and how he hero-worships Maggie Thatcher.
Mr Zahawi also fronted head-on the scandal over the taxpayer-funded bill for heating a stable for his horses – “an embarrassing but honest mistake” – and attending an infamous men-only event where hostesses were reportedly groped by some of those present.
The event made him feel ‘”incredibly uncomfortable”.
Chancellor for little over a week, Mr Zahawi has obviously been burning the midnight oil swatting up on his brief.
He told us how a 20% cut in the running costs of every government department would provide enough fiscal firepower to be able to cut taxes.
He’s looking at reducing corporation tax; income tax and National Insurance. He’s also promised to honour a 9% pay increase for junior teachers but won’t commit to a similar pledge for other public sector workers because we’re facing “a national emergency”.
Turning to his own finances sees the chancellor sit up a little straighter in his rather expensive salon chair, in the suite where we are filming at the Intercontinental hotel overlooking Hyde Park.
What was your reaction when you saw the reports that your own tax affairs had been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency and HMRC?
“I was clearly being smeared. I was told that the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency, HMRC were looking into me.
“I’m not aware of this. I’ve always declared my taxes – I’ve paid my taxes in the UK. I will answer any questions HMRC has of me.
“But I will go further. I will make a commitment today, that if I am prime minister the right thing to do is publish my accounts annually. That is the right thing to do because we need to take this issue off the table.”
“I will publish my accounts annually, that’s the right thing to do.”
“I will look at what the options are in terms of backdating and publishing annually.”
Over the last decade?
“If I am prime minister I will publish them going forward. I don’t think being retrospective is right. I was in business before, I came out of that, of course, now I’m now in politics.”
Is it true that your family benefits from an offshore trust?
“My family does not benefit from an offshore – I don’t benefit from an offshore trust, nor does my wife – we don’t benefit at all from that. My mother and father live abroad – that’s their business. They don’t live in the UK.”
Have you ever had non-dom status?
“I’ve never had non-dom status.”
Have you ever used offshore companies to avoid tax?
“Never used an offshore company to avoid tax.”
Has your family?
“My family – my wife has never been non-dom, she’s never used offshore status to avoid tax.”
Have you told us everything about your business affairs that could potentially impact your future ability to be PM?
“Yes, I have.”
Have you ever used offshore companies or services firms based in tax havens for the purchase of property or properties in the UK?
“No, I haven’t.”
Have you fully declared all of your properties in the MPs ‘register of interests?
“Yes, we have.”
Did you pay the requisite taxes, including stamp duty, when purchasing these properties?
Press reporting alleges that, according to Companies House records, you once held £20m of YouGov shares in a Gibraltar-based company, Balford Investments. What is the reason for using offshore financial structures like this, if not for the purpose of avoiding tax?
“I was not a beneficiary of the Balshore investment that holds those shares.”
“My family. It’s a matter of public record – my father.”
But why would you do that if it wasn’t for the purpose of avoiding tax?
“He lives abroad, he doesn’t live in the United Kingdom.”
We eventually moved on but not before I asked Mr Zahawi: “How rich are you?”
He hesitates for a moment before offering a coquettish response.
Dodging any firm numbers he gives the impression he’s perhaps so wealthy that he just doesn’t know the answer.
That could be a problem for the would-be prime minister who wants to be the man to guide the country out of a cost of living crisis.
To be fair, he’s not alone in his abundant wealth. Several of the runners and riders are multi-millionaires including Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps.
There are other awkward questions for him to answer including back in 2013 when he claimed expenses for heating stables for his horses on the Warwickshire estate he owns with his wife.
“A genuine mistake. Not realising actually [his stable heating and personal heating] was coming in on a single bill.”
“It was a complete error, a mistake, and of course I apologised and repaid.”
Asked if he was embarrassed, Mr Zahawi said: “Of course. Deeply embarrassing. But it was a genuine mistake. It’s much better to admit and demonstrate than to do anything else.”
Back in 2018, he attended a men-only event at the Dorchester Hotel – a stone’s throw away from where we are conducting this interview.
Hostesses claimed they were groped by some of the attendees. The ensuing scandal saw the charity fundraising club disbanded.
Then children’s minister, Mr Zahawi says he arrived late and left early after feeling uncomfortable.
“Young ladies, hostesses, came round each table, which made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, which is why I left the dinner and went home.
“I think on reflection, including the charity itself, those all-male dinners are wrong. I think actually one of the things I’m passionate about is that we treat people properly, including people who are there to serve us, whether in government or elsewhere.”
Asked what he’d say to his sons if they were thinking about attending such an event, Mr Zahawi says firmly: “Don’t go.”
I also asked him about loyalty. He has been criticised for accepting a job as chancellor from Boris Johnson and within 36 hours forced out the man who had put him in the post.
He said: “I remained loyal till the end. In fact, when I and many other colleagues went to see him on Wednesday night, I sat with him and said ‘I’ve known you for 30 years – they’re going to try and humiliate you and I can’t bear seeing you humiliated’.
“I want to explain to you what I think is about to happen and I hope you will consider it and do this with dignity.”
By the end of the interview, Mr Zahawi had answered all my questions, refusing to duck the embarrassing moments and vociferously championing his plans for the future.
The next few weeks will see if the Boy from Baghdad who arrived in the UK unable to speak the language has done enough to win over both his colleagues and Conservative members around the country to take what he considers the ultimate prize – prime minister.