Privilege and performance: UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak

With British PM Boris Johnson on shaky ground for partying during Covid, the UK’s Indian-origin Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak could be the country’s first Hindu to occupy 10 Downing Street.
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in London
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in London

They drank and danced, and later moved to the Number 10 garden. Unruly aides not just broke rules, they broke a swing belonging to the Prime Minister’s infant son. The same morning, the Queen, in accordance with England’s Covid-19 regulations at the time, attended Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, masked and socially distanced, and alone.

During the last few days, the details of how British Prime Minister Boris Johnson flouted his own government’s Covid restrictions, by holding an office party, are slowly emerging. The party was at the basement of Downing Street, a government laptop played music and a staffer was sent to nearby Co-op to buy cheap wine, though the invite from his personal secretary had told the party-goers to feel free to bring their own booze.

When details came out in media, Johnson first pretended he was angry and unaware of the incidents. “I want to apologise,” the 57-year-old Prime Minister told the House of Commons, as his approval ratings tumbled.

MP Chris Philp said on air that Johnson “apologised really fulsomely for what happened. He did it publicly, and he did it fulsomely”. Similarly, MP Christopher Chope applauded Johnson’s “most abject and fulsome apology”. Most of his senior ministers stood by him in his hour of agony.

But one of the most prominent ministers in the government, the 41-year-old Minister of Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, with the slickest social media account in Britain, gave a cold endorsement to the prime minister. “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry,” he said after staying away from media glare while his cabinet colleagues braved airwaves defending a beleaguered Johnson.

Sunak said he was “on a visit all day today” and “meeting MPs”. This sounded as indigestible as Johnson’s assertion that he thought the Number 10 booze-up was a “work event”. He clearly didn’t want to make any statements supporting Johnson and throw any verbal hand grenades that would blow up his own arm. Especially when he is eyeing for the top job himself.

The Tory whips have so far managed to contain any major challenges for Johnson. After short parliamentary recesses end, Johnson may receive a fixed penalty notice from Metropolitan Police for breaking Covid protocols and he may end up in a leadership challenge. Then Number 10 will be working to survive day by day and Johnson will be spending all his energy to halt one Indian-origin politician, Sunak, on his tracks.

Rishi Sunak (right) delivers his Budget in the House of Commons
Rishi Sunak (right) delivers his Budget in the House of Commons

The road ahead
A recent poll of party members by the ConservativeHome website ranked Sunak easily top of cabinet satisfaction ratings, while Johnson was relegated to the bottom of the list. This is in contrast to a survey in December 2020 which asked Conservative Party members who should take over were Johnson to step aside, and just five out of 1,191 named Sunak.

While the Prime Minister was attracting wrong headlines, the Labour Party was busy clubbing Sunak to the country’s economic misfortune. During Prime Minister’s Questions last week, every single one of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s questions to Johnson mostly evaded all the lockdown parties or Johnson's rapidly falling reputation. Instead, there were six questions pointed at Sunak.

From describing Johnson and Sunak as “the Tory Thelma and Louise”, and “the loan shark Chancellor and his unwitting sidekick”, the Labour has moved on to train their guns solely on Sunak, anchoring their belief on predictions that Sunak will be the next Tory leader.

Labour insiders think he is not mature enough to understand political realities and his wealth has made him out of touch with ordinary people. But statistics tell a different story. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Sunak are both rated higher by the public on their leadership attributes than the Prime Minister, new polling has shown. But Sir Keir and Sunak registered similar scores when compared across a range of leadership skills, according to the latest Ipsos UK Political Pulse survey.

Following Sir Keir hitting out on the Chancellor’s use of social media, one Twitter warrior pointed out: ‘If you had a negative net favourability rating and falling (Sir Keir Starmer) you’d probably want to avoid being seen to launch personal attacks on the most popular politician in the UK at the moment (Rishi Sunak)’. The Labour leader had goaded Sunak’s plan to restore the nation’s finances, saying it ‘will look better on Instagram’.

Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly, trolling the Labour leader, said his “joke-filled speech was like watching an episode of Friends without the laugh track.” Many in Westminster think if Sunak resigns today he can be prime minister by the next weekend. But which route will he take?


Sunak’s route to power has been privileged and well-orchestrated. His Punjabi grandparents came to Britain from colonial East Africa in the 1960s. “It stung, I still remember, it’s seared in my memory,” he recently told the BBC how he was racially abused in a restaurant as a teenager.

His doctor father and pharmacist mother sent him to an elite private school, Winchester College. The school’s alumni include General Sir Nick Carter (Chief of the Defence Staff), David Thouless (The Nobel Prize in Physics, 2016), Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi (Indian cricketer) and George Mallory (Everest mountaineer).

He subsequently studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Lincoln College, Oxford, and later finished an MBA from Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar. He met his future wife, Akshata Murthy, daughter of NR Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of IT giant Infosys, at Stanford.

The story of Sunak is not a rags-to-riches story. His elite upbringing had helped him to access top education and make huge gains as an investment banker and later as a politician. Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds before winning the Parliamentary election in 2015.

The Labour peer and thinker, Maurice Glasman, who studied modern history at Cambridge, says: “PPE combines the status of an elite university degree—PPE is the ultimate form of being good at school—with the stamp of a vocational course. It is perfect training for cabinet membership, and it gives you a view of life. It is a very profound cultural form.”

For others, the degree is not a solution but the problem. Former government adviser Dominic Cummings wrote on his influential blog: “If you are young, smart, and interested in politics, think very hard before studying PPE... It actually causes huge problems as it encourages people like (David) Cameron and Ed Balls to... spread bad ideas with lots of confidence and bluffing.”

Sunak sometimes forgets to acknowledge his privileges growing up as an affluent student. “Growing up I never thought I would be in this job (mainly because I wanted to be a Jedi),” he wrote on Twitter and Instagram. “It’s been incredibly tough but thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way.”

Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, was quick to retort through Twitter: “A heart-warming story of a young boy born to affluent parents, sent to an elite private school, then Oxford, who got a job in investment banking, before becoming the wealthiest MP in Parliament and voting for policies that plunged millions of working-class people into poverty.”

Sunak’s wealth is both his strength and political weakness. He is estimated to have a net worth of around £200 million and built a £400,000 leisure complex at his £2 million Yorkshire mansion. The couple, according to media reports, have at least four properties. A five-bedroom mews house in Kensington is believed to be worth around £7 million.

The Internet erupted with snarky memes when he was photographed with a £150 “smart mug” that keeps coffee at a perfect drinking temperature for up to three hours and when he described working out on an exercise bike that retails at around £2,000.

No British Chancellor who, at the time of his appointment, had been in Parliament for fewer than five years. “He is also, effectively, the first to be appointed with no full cabinet experience, either in government or opposition (Norman Lamont, another investment banker, also lacked cabinet experience but had spent a lot longer in Parliament and had a number of posts as a junior minister),” says Despina Alexiadou, Chancellor’s Fellow at the School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde.

On average, British finance ministers have a cabinet experience of five years and will have spent at least 15 years in Parliament. “Sunak’s professional background is also uncommon for British politics. He had a distinguished career in investment banking prior to entering politics, despite his young age. Banking experience might seem ‘appropriate’ for a chancellor but it’s not a common professional background for British politicians—even those overseeing the finance portfolio,” adds Despina.

Sunak has been winning hearts from day one. Journalist Andrew Marr says while Johnson has been wallowing, Sunak has been rising: Worried about energy prices and energy security? Sunak is pushing for fast movement on oil and gas licenses in the North Sea. Cost of living crisis? There is a Sunak package. Tax and spend? Sunak is coming out ever more clearly on the hawkish, post-Thatcherite end of the argument against Johnson’s populism, refusing spending on the NHS, for instance, until more so-called taxpayer value is achieved. And those awful things Johnson says? Sunak, in all honesty, wouldn’t have said them.

Nerd Chic

Sunak has been trying to build his image through social media since he moved in. The man behind the social media glow-up of Sunak was Cass Horowitz, co-founder of The Clerkenwell Brothers, an “independent creative studio working across strategy, identity, advertising & social”. Horowitz was introduced to Sunak by his old private school classmate.

He is being marketed by the agency, like many other products, tequila, yoga mats and organic juices. Sunak stretched his appeal by appearing in outlets as varied as Glamour magazine and LADbible. While some of the social media campaigns were plain tacky, others oscillate between boatloads of swagger and nerd-chic images, eventually creating Brand Rishi.

He had also started a YouTube conversations channel and the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was the first guest. Jay Rayner, The Observer restaurant critic, said the video was “that killer combination of tone-deaf and chronically self-important”.

“There’s a certain obvious opportunism to it,” says Philip Seargeant, author of The Art
of Political Storytelling. “The particular approach he and his team are taking is probably a lot to do with the old advertising idea of positioning—finding a distinct persona within the market—so the slick but homely image that’s being pushed for him is different from the belligerent populist images that have dominated politics recently, and has the chance to stand out because of this.”

Horowitz helped the Chancellor to create ‘eat out to help out’, the scheme that helped struggling restaurants during the pandemic. Together they also dreamed up other catchy acronym policies: sector-based work academies (Swap) and the job entry targeted support scheme (Jets).

Desi Bonding

Since setting up of the Economic and Financial Dialogue (EFD) in 2007, the UK’s bilateral trade with India has more than doubled to nearly £24 billion in 2019. India is now the UK’s second-largest source of investment with 120 new projects in 2019-20. Indian investment in the UK is focused on technology, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing, including electric vehicles at Jaguar Land Rover’s Castle Bromwich plant in the West Midlands.

The landmark 10th Economic and Financial Dialogue between the UK and India saw the Chancellor and the Indian Minister of Finance, Nirmala Sitharaman, meeting to build further economic ties between the two countries. The UK and India have a strong investment relationship, with UK and Indian investments supporting over half a million jobs in each other’s economies. More than 800 Indian companies operate in the UK, employing more than 110,000 people.

India-UK trade deal is the biggest challenge before Sunak if he wants to show off his economic diplomacy skills. India has traditionally been harsh to foreign trade negotiators, but is forecast to become the world’s biggest importer by 2050. In 2019, the trade between India and the UK was equal to only three percent of Britain’s total trade with the EU. But India, with a GDP of £2 trillion, is also predicted to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2050.

UK firms exporting to India currently face far higher tariffs (19 percent, on average) than they do to the US (two percent), and the UK is calling for trade liberalisation. The UK is keen on securing a free trade agreement before the US and the EU seal the deal and make an entry into the market.

India is asking for relaxed free movement of people in exchange for goods and services. Reduced fees for Indian students is also a priority, while Britain wants reduced tariffs for wine and cars. These stumbling blocks are going to be a big test for Sunak.

Indian diaspora is happy to see an articulate and amiable Indian-origin politician getting into the inner track of the British political race. But some argue that his elevation may not change the fortunes of Indian diaspora workers as the overall Tory policies are creating a cost of living crisis and cutting down social benefits for the underprivileged.

“He won’t help the working class of any background. He is the Chancellor presiding over the highest level of taxation in the UK for 70 years. Once again the books are being balanced on the backs of the poorest in our society,” says Martyn Day, Scottish National Party MP.

Johnson, however, can’t be written off yet. He may offer Sunak a promise of support as the next leader in barter for smooth sailing now. The team player Sunak may find this offer attractive and the Labour believes he will walk into that trap. But it is a path paved with trust issues.

“If the Chancellor shakes and hesitates to strike, seduced by that seductive crocodile smile and those ‘like me’ eyes, then one morning, sooner or later, I fear the crocodile will waddle next door and eat Rishi up, crunch, crunch, crunch, all the way from his immaculately designer-shod feet to his wide and no doubt slightly surprised grin,” says Marr.

As a last resort, the Labour also pins hopes on an obscure static that the taller presidential candidate tends to win. Both Sir Keir and Johnson are relatively short at the same height of 5 ft 8 in. But the Labour leader is still taller than the diminutive Chancellor (5 ft 6 in).

“Bring on the little Rishi,” they say. But they forget the fact that one of Britain’s longest-serving and most powerful prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, was just 5 ft 5 in. Sometimes political memories can be shorter than ambitious investment bankers.

The Chancellor’s Wife is Richer than the Queen

Rishi Sunak met his wife Akshata Murthy while studying at Stanford University, US. The couple married in 2009 in a two-day wedding event in Bengaluru. Akshata is the daughter of N R Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of IT behemoth Infosys and one of the richest men in India. With an estimated personal fortune of £430 million, she is reportedly richer than the Queen whose personal wealth is worth £350 million. According to a February 2020 media report, Akshata has a £185 million stake in her father’s IT firm. She runs a fashion label called Akshata Designs, and also reportedly works as a director of a venture capital company founded by her father in 2010.

The Clerkenwell Brothers’ Cass Horowitz helped Sunak to create eat out to help out’, the scheme that helped struggling restaurants. They also dreamed up other catchy acronym policies: sector-based work academies (Swap) and the job entry targeted support scheme (Jets).

A recent poll of party members ranked Sunak easily top of cabinet satisfaction ratings, while Johnson was relegated to the bottom of the list. This is in contrast to a survey in December 2020 which asked Conservative Party members who should take over were Johnson to step aside, and just five out of 1,191 named Sunak.

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