Rishi Sunak is the new holder of British politics’ most unenviable post, the next Prime Minister. The role has been played over the years by many talented figures, almost none of whom has actually made it to Number Ten.
But with the ascension of Boris Johnson – a man written off by a larger number of serious commentators than any politician now living – a vacancy has arisen, and the as yet almost totally unknown Sunak has been chosen to fill it. As George Parker reported a few days ago in The Financial Times:
“Some Tory MPs are convinced the steep upward ascent of Mr Sunak’s political career puts him on a course to one day become prime minister. He declined to be interviewed for this article.”
We see Sunak struggling, as anyone of sense would, against elevation to the lonely, envy-inducing, failure-presaging role of the next PM, in which one finds oneself haunted in the small hours by the ghost of Rab Butler, who explains what it was that so unexpectedly allowed Harold Macmillan and then Alec Home to overtake him in the final furlong of the race.
And yet we are witnessing a Sunak boom, in which he rises at astonishing speed to become one of the key figures in the Johnson administration, charged with making a success of reviving the neglected towns of northern England which have just voted Conservative for the first time. As Parker reported,
“Rishi Sunak, the Treasury chief secretary who stood in for Boris Johnson in television debates during the general election campaign, is being tipped by senior Tories to run a new economic super-ministry after a big cabinet reshuffle due in February. Conservatives close to the prime minister said Mr Sunak’s performance during the election put him in line for promotion to a full cabinet portfolio in the reshuffle. ‘Rishi is a superstar, he keeps to the line and proved himself to be a calm, able debater,’ said one Tory official, adding he would be a ‘perfect fit’ for the economic super-ministry being considered by Mr Johnson. The prime minister is expected to create a beefed-up business ministry — absorbing the international trade department — with a remit to attract inward investment and ‘level up’ Britain’s economy by targeting help at poorer areas including parts of the midlands and northern England.”
Not everyone was impressed by Sunak’s performances in the seven-way election debates in which he represented the Conservatives, with Rowena Mason writing in The Guardian after the ITV debate:
“Cheesy and wooden, Sunak did not make any major slip-ups but he struggled to cut through and his lines all sounded precooked. However, the Conservatives are likely to be relieved that he got through the two hours without incident while delivering the key campaign messages.”
Sunak is not a star debater, but possesses several other qualities which fit him for a starring role in the Johnson government. He is extremely bright, extremely energetic and extremely proud to be British.
The Prime Minister possesses those qualities himself, esteems them in his colleagues, and delights to promote people such as Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Alok Sharma and Sunak himself who demonstrate that Conservative values, including hard work, patriotism, bettering oneself by getting a good education and helping others to do the same, are every bit as appealing to people of immigrant descent as to anyone else.
A generation ago, such ministers would almost certainly have joined the Labour Party. Now it is the Conservatives, thanks especially to the widening of the parliamentary party under David Cameron’s leadership, who have given them the chance to shine.
Sunak’s grandparents were born in the Punjab and arrived from East Africa in England in the 1960s. His father worked as a GP in Southampton and his mother ran a pharmacy, with young Rishi, born in 1980, keeping the books for her.
He took the scholarship exams for Winchester College, did not win a full scholarship, but his parents decided they would send him there anyway.
In a recent conversation with Nick Robinson, he said his family believe “education is everything”. In an even more recent podcast recorded by two pupils at a school in Richmond, in his North Yorkshire constituency, he said when they began by asking him where he had been to school, and what type of school it was:
“So I was very fortunate to go to this amazing school called Winchester College, and it’s in Hampshire, and it’s a very old boarding school but an absolutely marvellous place.”
Few people in public life speak with such enthusiasm about their schooldays, especially if they are lucky enough to have gone to Eton or Winchester, and to have enjoyed the experience. Sunak sounds more genuine than the many members of the Establishment who go through life trying to deny or downplay the privileges they have enjoyed.
The pupils proceeded to ask what his favourite subjects were, and he told them:
“economics, absolutely my major academic love, I love economics, I still read lots of economics.”
He has other enthusiasms too, for the Saints (Southampton Football Club, where his childhood hero was Matt Le Tissier), cricket (he had the decency not to make the First Eleven at Winchester, but was Senior Commoner Prefect, or head boy), Roald Dahl’s volumes of autobiography (Boy and Going Solo), the Star Wars films (he knew the answers to all five questions about them put by Nick Robinson) and Coca-Cola (“I’m a total Coke addict, Coca-Cola addict to be totally clear, I have seven fillings to show for it”).
Politicians often make a mess of these simple questions: one thinks of Gordon Brown’s love of the Arctic Monkeys or Theresa May running through fields of wheat. Sunak displays an almost disconcerting lack of the inhibitions which avert straight answers.
He went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he took a First in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, after which he travelled on a Fulbright scholarship to Stanford University, where he did an MBA and met a fellow student, Akshata Murphy, whom in 2009 he married. They have two daughters.
Sunak is better known in India than in Britain because his wife is the daughter of N.R.Narayana Murthy, billionaire co-founder of Infosys, a tremendously successful IT company.
Since graduating from Stanford, Sunak has worked in California, India and Britain, first for Goldman Sachs and later for various investment firms which he helped to set up, and as a director of the Murthy family company.
In October 2014 Sunak won selection as William Hague’s successor in the safe Conservative seat of Richmond, and was duly elected in 2015 as the MP for this overwhelmingly white part of Yorkshire. In his maiden speech, he used a joke he has often told in order to describe how he had fitted in there:
“Wandering through an auction market, I was introduced to a farmer as ‘the new William Hague’. He looked at me, quizzically, then said, ‘Ah yes, Haguey! Good bloke. I like him. Bit pale, though. This one’s got a better tan.’ [Laughter.] “
In an interview with the Indian paper The Business Standard, conducted at the House of Commons soon after his election, he explained:
“British Indian is what I tick on the census, we have a category for it. I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu.”
He also said of the family into which he married, “I think I have swung them to a pro-British outlook on life,” so although they had done a lot of business in the United States, they had shifted to “a very pro-UK approach”.
Sunak noted, in some work he did for Policy Exchange, the shared willingness of this country’s otherwise very diverse ethnic minorities to identify themselves as British:
“Perhaps fittingly, one of the few common traits amongst minorities is their shared sense of ‘British-ness’. Almost all ethnic minorities have a much stronger commitment to the notion of ‘British-ness’ than their white peers and feel it is an important part of their identity. In contrast, the white population prefers to identify itself with the individual home countries and ‘being British’ appears to be much less important to them.”
He himself finds it entirely natural to express his pride in being British, and his belief, as he put in in his maiden speech, “in a compassionate Britain that provides opportunity and values freedom”.
Not long after entering Parliament, he had to decide which side he would back in the EU referendum. He told Nick Robinson he came to the question “with an open mind”, was not ideological about it but “went through it analytically…I looked through the numbers”.
He decided to back Leave, in part because “having the flexibility and the nimbleness to adapt” to a rapidly changing world “would be of enormous value to us”.
So Sunak is at one and the same time profoundly British and profoundly global in outlook. In 2016, he supported Michael Gove’s unsuccessful bid for the Tory leadership.
In January 2018, Theresa May made him a junior minister in the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, where Sajid Javid was Secretary of State.
A year and a half later, Sunak had to decide who to support in the Tory leadership race, and together with two other junior ministers, Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick, questioned Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house in Westminster.
The three of them proceeded to write an article for The Times Red Box which appeared on 5th June 2019 under the headline: “The Tories are in deep trouble. Only Boris Johnson can save us”.
This endorsement came at a valuable moment for Johnson, for it helped show him as a unifying figure who was pulling away from his rivals. He was hailed by the trio as a “proven winner” who can “inspire the country and revitalise our party”.
After Johnson had won, he made Sunak Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jenrick Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and Dowden Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.
Sunak’s promotion into the Cabinet, though a striking achievement for an MP who had only entered Parliament in 2015, has not yet provoked the envy and mockery which come the way of someone like Matt Hancock.
The modesty of Sunak’s demeanour, the fact that he is “not in the least swanky or ostentatious” as one colleague puts it, his friendliness and undeniable intellectual ability have helped to deflect criticism.
Sunak has won golden opinions at the Treasury. Officials find “he gets it”, and explaining some difficult question to him can be a good way to make progress towards ministerial approval.
Javid is regarded, by contrast, as a weak Chancellor presiding over a weakened department, which has become incapable of standing up to Number Ten.
So conditions are perhaps more propitious than usual for setting up a rival economics department, a project which in the past the Treasury has managed to strangle pretty much at birth.
And maybe Sunak has the qualities needed to run such a department. Johnson certainly seems to think so, and often turns to him first for advice on economic questions, about which the Prime Minister cannot be said to know very much.
Sunak has spoken with delight of the “delivery, outcomes-focussed” approach taken at the daily meetings of the committee charged with preparing for a no deal Brexit, on which he himself served.
It reminded him of the “can-do, problem-solving” mentality found in the private sector. And those are qualities the Prime Minister now wants to see applied to the regeneration of neglected towns, along with such dynamism-promoting innovations as free ports, for which Sunak expressed enthusiasm in a CPS paper published in 2016.
So Sunak is ready to play a key role in trying to realise the Johnson project. Whether he might one day have a project of his own, it is much too early to say, but for him to return in a couple of years to the Treasury as Chancellor would be a natural and already widely expected progression.