‘You can’t deny the past’
Widespread reviews by councils of statues with links to the UK’s imperial past made him “deeply uncomfortable”.
He said: “You don’t become a better nation, a more cohesive community by denying the past, removing the past. Half of Whitehall will have to be demolished… You explain the past, you explain both sides.
“There are some really important things that happened that are great things that we exported to the rest of the world, as well as the less good things. I think that’s really important.
“And I’m deeply uncomfortable with us beginning to view everything through the lens of 2022, when life was very different in previous centuries and the values then were different.”
He added: “It worries me deeply. It worries me that it is happening not just in the United Kingdom, it’s happening in the US.
“My two sons went to Princeton University and they were shocked that there is a movement to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the Woodrow Wilson School of Government.”
Learning from pandemic errors
Mr Zahawi launched a major schools white paper on education this week with an admission that it had been a “mistake” for the Government to order the closure of schools in England when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
He said that ministers now accepted that “it was a mistake to keep them out of school”, adding: “I take collective responsibility. I am part of the Government.
“The Prime Minister would agree with me on this, that the way we dealt with the pandemic – we have to learn from our mistakes. School stayed open and – I give credit – for the front line critical workers.”
Mr Zahawi committed to increasing the number of primary school children who can reach expected standards in reading, writing and maths to 90 per cent by 2030, from 65 per cent in 2019.
All schools will be converted to academies including faith schools and grammars which will be allowed to continue to select their intakes by the end of the decade.
Mr Zahawi, who was promoted from Vaccines Minister to Education Secretary at last September’s Cabinet reshuffle, said he was applying the lessons learned during the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
“You don’t get a high performance through regulation. The way you get high performance is by evidencing it and then scaling. I did it on the vaccine. I’m going to do it again here,” he said.
“High-performing multi-academies – like the Boleyn Trust, like the Harris Trust – have outperformed. We have to work out how to get every school into that high-performing family of schools.”
‘It’s all about outcomes for children’
Just as his focus had been on delivering jabs into arms, Mr Zahawi said he was concerned about giving children the knowledge and skills for when they leave school.
“I was never interested when I was doing vaccines as to how many vaccines we had in the warehouse. I said to my whole team, ‘we want to know how many we’ve got in people’s arms because that’s how we save lives’.
“It’s about outcomes – it is the same here. If we all remember – whether the unions or anyone else – that it’s that a child’s outcomes are what matters, then we evidence it and we won’t go much wrong.”
He refused to say if he would allow more selective grammar schools to open, saying: “I want their ethos, their DNA to spread through our school system.”
But his focus had to be all schools, not just the 165 grammar schools: “If every day, every week, there are children going to the 900 schools that are below good, inadequate in our system, it’s a blighted future for those kids.
“It is an opportunity missed to deliver for those children. And my focus has to be on scale.”
Mr Zahawi – who has lost weight in recent months – is tipped as a possible successor to Boris Johnson if the Prime Minister is forced out over the “Partygate” controversy or another unforeseen row.
Asked for the definition of a woman – an issue which has stumped Labour politicians – he said: “A woman is an adult human female. My favourite subject at school was human biology. It’s a straightforward answer.”
When I asked if the PM is a tax-cutting Tory, he replied straight away: “Yes, I am, as is the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.”
He was fiercely loyal to Mr Johnson, describing him as “the most consequential leader of his generation”.
But he did not explicitly rule out a run for the leadership despite insisting that a “TL” badge on his jacket lapel stood for “T-Levels” not “Tory Leader”.
His focus now was on improving standards in schools: “I want as much time in education. The average tenure of a secretary state in education is 17 months. If you take Gove and Blunkett away from that, it’s even shorter.
“I’m hoping to break both of their records because if I can do this, this is real legacy stuff for this country that gave this immigrant boy everything.
“If I can deliver it, there’s nothing more valuable on earth than human capital. Nothing.
“And if I can deliver young minds as healthy, skilled adults that live happy, productive lives and I would do something truly great for the country that’s given me everything.”
Listen to Christopher Hope’s interview with Nadhim Zahawi on Chopper’s Politics, The Telegraph’s weekly political podcast, using the audio player at the top of this article or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.