Sunak – a heartbeat from 10 Downing Street

Money talks: The chancellor launched a £2bn job creation scheme. © James Ferguson FT

Has he risen too far, too fast? This week, all eyes were on the whizz-kid chancellor. After a meteoric rise, Rishi Sunak is tipped to become Britain’s first prime minister from an ethnic minority.

A Thai restaurant in Southampton is not where every bridegroom would choose to entertain his new wife’s billionaire parents. He might have gone for the glamour of a West End hotel, or even a Caribbean island. But Kuti’s Brasserie had a special significance for Rushi Sunak: he had worked there as a teenager, saving money from his waiter’s tips in preparation for university.

Now, at 40, Sunak is in charge of £350 billion of government money earmarked for reviving the economy after the pandemic. Chancellor of the Exchequer for just five months – and an MP for just five years – he carries more responsibility than anyone else who has held the post in peacetime. And having previously promised that the country would live within its means, he has had to tear up all his plans and start again, borrowing on an enormous scale.

Educated at one of Britain’s leading public schools, Winchester, and then Oxford University, Sunak has followed a traditional route to power – but not in a traditional way. His Hindu family arrived in England in the 1960s from India by way of Kenya and Tanzania. His father was a doctor and his mother ran a chemist’s shop, and they had to make big financial sacrifices to afford his school fees. Rishi repaid them by becoming Winchester’s head boy. “He was always expected to be head boy,” says a friend, “as he was clever enough, reasonable enough, and well behaved enough.”

At Oxford, he was known as a nerdy type who loved Star Wars and drank Coca-Cola rather than beer. He avoided political societies: “His fellow students certainly said, slightly light-heartedly, that he wanted to become Conservative prime minister,” one of his tutors remembers. “But I don’t think anyone took that too seriously.”

After Oxford, he followed a financial career, working for a merchant bank and then hedge funds, where he earned a reputation for charm, hard work, and general niceness. He met his wife, Akshata Murthy – whose father is the founder of one of India’s top IT companies – while taking time out to study for an MBA in California.

The selection of a metropolitan Hindu as the Conservative candidate for a rural Yorkshire seat caused ripples – Sunak once joked that he and his wife made up the entire immigrant population of the constituency. But his enthusiasm for cricket and Yorkshire tea won him friends and, now, says a local supporter, “They love him there.”

He soon made his mark in Parliament: after just two and a half years, he was appointed as a junior minister and, 18 months later, as chief secretary to the treasury. In February, following Sajid Javid’s unexpected resignation, he became the second-youngest chancellor in British history.

A new opinion poll gives him an approval rating of plus 41%, compared to 2% for Boris Johnson. But, says one MP, “There are those who hate him, as he’s now unfireable. There are many who don’t like the fact another power base is emerging.”

Has he risen too far, too fast?

Smart money

Some say, no, he has exactly the right qualities to be a prime minister. He is competent and likeable, and has impressed everyone with his decisive and compassionate measures to help people and businesses cope with the pandemic. A leader who isn’t white is exactly what Britain needs when racism is so much on people’s minds, and his rise through hard work epitomises Conservative values at their best.

Others point out that a candidate for prime minister needs to cultivate allies among his fellow MPs – but, according to one of them, Sunak “doesn’t play the parliamentary game at all”. His rise and considerable wealth at a relatively young age have inevitably caused jealousy, and his passion for Brexit would make him unacceptable to Conservatives who voted to remain.

You Decide

  1. Who would you trust more – a rich prime minister or one from a poor background?
  2. Does a prime minister’s religion matter in a modern democracy?

Activities

  1. Paint a portrait of Rishi Sunak as a character from Star Wars.
  2. Imagine that you are standing for the leadership of a parliamentary party. Write a one-page letter to your fellow MPs explaining why they should vote for you.

Some People Say...

“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910), American author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Sunak is very adept at choosing sides, and his support can be decisive. When he chose to campaign for Brexit, David Cameron is reported to have said, “If we’ve lost Rishi, we’ve lost the future of the party.” His decision to back Boris Johnson for the Tory leadership is regarded as a turning point, convincing backbenchers that Johnson could be seen as a serious choice.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns how far Sunak goes his own way. Sajid Javid resigned as chancellor rather than fire his advisers and accept a team which was shared with the prime minister. Sunak, though, seems to have been happy to go along with this and take direction from Johnson’s chief special adviser, Dominic Cummings. His supporters, however, insist that his impressive response to the pandemic shows him to be more than a “chino” (chancellor in name only).

Word Watch

Chancellor of the Exchequer
The chief finance minister of the UK, who prepares the nation’s annual budgets.
Political societies
The most important political society at Oxford is the Oxford Union. It is famous for its debates, and past presidents include Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Hedge funds
An investment company which aims to minimise risk by spreading its investments widely.
MBA
Master of Business Administration, a degree dating from 1908 which is designed to give a scientific approach to management.
Yorkshire
England’s largest county, famous for its independently minded people and its cricket team.
Chief secretary to the treasury
The UK’s third-most responsible finance minister. Only one chief secretary, John Major, has gone on to become prime minister.
Approval rating
The difference between the percentage of people who approve of your work and the percentage who do not. Sunak’s rating is plus 41% because 62% of people think he is doing well, against 21% who think he is doing badly.

Subjects

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