Before the burnish-filter Instagram shots, before GQ devoted a page to the cut of his lapel, before he autographed – like a quality-control stamp – his Treasury policies on Covid, even before the frenzy at his every utterance, like it was the Fonz up there on the afternoon press conference podium, and not the chancellor of the exchequer, there was a moment when Rishi Sunak was nervous.
It was late November. He had been chosen to stand in for Boris Johnson during a seven-way TV election debate on the BBC. Inside Westminster, it was a move that fanned the persistent rumors that Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser, wanted him to replace Sajid Javid as chancellor. In the country, no one had really heard of him. Sunak’s answer to this pressure? Call Amber Rudd. The former home secretary had stood in for Theresa May during the 2017 election debates. “He told me en passant that he’d watched all the debates,” Rudd says. “He’d done his research. And he said that I was very good, and I was flattered. And so I gave him advice, tips, and then I said, ‘Of course, you have to go off-script sometimes.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ Then, ‘No. I’m not going to do that.’ ”
And he didn’t. He stayed on message, on brand. He made Cummings happy, he made Johnson happy, he made Isaac Levido – the baby-faced, bearded hipster running the Conservative campaign – happy. And in February this year, when Javid resigned after losing a power struggle with Cummings, Sunak found himself elevated to the second most powerful job in government. He had been an MP for less than five years. It is one of the fastest ascents in political history. It reminded everybody of another politician with a fast ascent: Tony Blair. Now the expectations are high indeed. Blair won three elections for Labour. Is he the future of the Tory party?
Sunak, 40, has certainly captured the presentation of Blair, down to the verbal tells – he ends his sentences with that familiar rhetorical uptick, “right?”. Others see his stint at Goldman Sachs and hedge funds as evidence of a business acumen not seen since Michael Heseltine. Advisers liken his calm integrity to Jeremy Hunt’s. He has the geeky klutz of Ed Miliband. He told two Yorkshire schoolchildren that he was “a total coke addict”, before spluttering in correction, as they dissolved into giggles, “Coca-Cola addict, to be totally clear.”
It is one of the fastest ascents in political history. It reminded everybody of another politician with a fast ascent: Tony Blair.
Sunakian Conservatism has quite a ring to it – but what does it really mean? He’s attempted to protect jobs and limit the damage of the pandemic, but Covid-19 is expected to cost the exchequer almost $393 billion this year. This has led to a very slick, businesslike presentation of image across the media, common in American and French politics but unusual here. That part has been overseen by Cass Horowitz, a savvy young creative who co-founded his own social media consultancy, the Clerkenwell Brothers, straight out of university. Horowitz is sometimes photographed behind the chancellor, disheveled hair, creased linen shirt, ankle-grazing trousers.
Of course, Horowitz is not responsible for Sunak’s manicures, the hair clay or the well-cut suits “from an independent tailor”, according to an aide. Sunak, staff say, “is bemused by all the attention”.
But here’s an important point from a former cabinet minister: “The rest of us have scars on our back. What I find interesting about Rishi is how much power there is in being unknown. People can project what they want onto Rishi, a bit like they did with Blair.” He continues, “Rishi is not a wild ideologue. Most of the big jobs in politics, you get found out quickly if you are, say, egotistical, or not across detail. The Treasury is the one job where you can be Macavity-like.”
Gathered with other cabinet ministers around the green table, Sunak is most notable for his reserve. “It’s hard having risen so fast,” says a cabinet colleague. “He has a huge amount of weight on his shoulders.” Does it show? “He has definitely got quieter during the crisis. But the stress is not visible otherwise. In the big meetings, he doesn’t come into play in the way Michael [Gove] does. He is quiet and businesslike. He has a very strong point of view on corona and economics, but doesn’t try to dominate.” He doesn’t do the Etonian bantz. He doesn’t josh. “He’s much more considered; cautious. Although, obviously policy strokes are bold.”
A word about his shrewd personal political judgment: “Rishi’s decision to back Brexit was key,” says another former cabinet minister. “The leader of the Conservative Party will be a Brexiteer for a long time.” So, his Brexit support was strategic, but he also showed great tactical nous by calling Johnson the savior of the party two days before the formal start of the leadership campaign in June 2019. He co-authored an article for this paper with two other young Tories, Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick, that was headlined, “The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.” All three were rewarded with cabinet positions.
Middle-Class Values, Upper-Class Schooling
Part of Sunak’s appeal is also that he appears to represent a new “modern” party, one in which the Asian son of a bus driver – Sajid Javid – can become chancellor. But Sunak comes from a much more conventional Conservative background.
He is the son of small business owners – a GP and pharmacist – educated at fee-paying schools and Oxford University. Rishi Sunak was born in Southampton in late spring 1980, followed by his brother, Sanjay, in 1982 and sister, Raakhi, in 1985. In the referendum in 2016, Southampton voted Leave by 54 per cent (his Richmond constituency in North Yorkshire by 56 per cent). Today the streets of Southampton are quiet, taxi ranks have long lines of idling cars; people are wearing masks. The fortunes of the city were in decline before Covid, according to residents, despite their great football team, hospital and university.
The Sunak family lived away from the waterfront in Spindlewood Close, a street of substantial four-bedroom houses. On a sultry July morning, the cloudless sky is reflected in gleaming picture windows, sun bouncing from polished car hoods parked on tarmacked drives outside double garages. It’s a neat, clean street, so quiet, I can hear the soft scuff of my footsteps on the curb. It’s the England of Ladybird Peter and Jane books, of teatime, evening television and pot pourri bowls.
One resident is pruning pink mophead hydrangeas, another unrolling the garden hose to water her cropped green lawn; further down, a middle-aged lady sits on a deckchair, a mug of tea by her feet. Their views are of Bassett Green Wood, filled with beech trees and lined with rhododendron bushes. Crime is rare. As a child here, Sunak was a Star Wars fanatic: he collected action figures, Lego, magazines and posters. He learned the piano (his “greatest regret” is giving it up), collected Panini cards of Southampton FC, and spent hours head back, mouth open, squinting in the glare of the dentist’s lamp. He has seven fillings to show for his “Coke addiction” and now limits himself to only one a week (although there’s a Treasury aide on hand with a break-in-case-of-emergency box containing a Coke and a Twix). He was also a bookworm.
It’s the England of Ladybird Peter and Jane books, of teatime, evening television and pot pourri bowls.
In March this year, after announcing a cut in “reading tax”, he said, “Our greatest export to the world is our language. Our greatest asset is the free exchange of ideas and debate. And our greatest responsibility is the education of our people.” According to Sunak, his parents believe “education is everything”. Friends and neighbors use the word “obsessed”. Something wiped from his CV is that all three children were privately educated throughout, first at Stroud School, a 15-minute drive from their home. Rishi excelled there, going on to be head boy.
Stroud was a feeder for King Edward VI School in Southampton, where Sunak moved at 11, a short walk from Yashvir Sunak’s GP practice. Facilities include a “professional-standard theatre, art studios, new design technology block… ICT rooms… 17 science laboratories”, and 33 acres of grounds.
When I asked the school about their famous former pupil, they claimed first that their computer system was down, which prevented them checking records, and then emailed to say, “As I am sure you will appreciate, under GDPR legislation the school cannot provide any personal information to any third party.” Although this didn’t stop the junior school tweeting out congratulations to “our previous head boy Rishi Sunak” in February.
So it was from King Edward’s that Sunak “just missed” the expected “full scholarship” at Winchester College, but his parents sent him anyway. “[My parents] sacrificed a great deal so that I could attend,” Sunak says, emphasizing that the fees – now $54,631 per annum – were a massive financial undertaking. But his brother Sanjay followed two years later and his sister was educated at King Edward’s.
Winchester taught him independence and self-motivation, Sunak says. “You can’t get your parents to help with everything.” He was head boy and edited the school paper. His only mildly rebellious anecdote is that he smuggled a handheld TV into school to watch Euro 96, hiding in an attic room with a friend trying to get good reception. “We were jumping up and down – someone scored – we were singing, it was like a scene from a movie… Then we turned around and standing in the doorway was our teacher, who was nonplussed. He’d already busted us once.”
Elsewhere he’s described Winchester as “completely intimidating”, recalling that he wore second-hand uniform. (A former pupil stresses this wasn’t unusual: “No one would’ve noticed.”) He also says it was “intellectually transforming” and that “it put me on a different trajectory” – proving a springboard for him beyond the realms of a less well-known private school. Winchester had produced five chancellors before him.
“So, I was very fortunate to go to this school,” Sunak told those two pupils from Yorkshire. “It’s a very old boarding school but an absolutely marvelous place.” He went on to describe how he was good at cricket and loved economics. “I still read lots of economics blogs in my spare time.” Imagine the sort of mockery that would follow any other politician describing their famous public school as “absolutely marvelous” to two state school kids? “Most of us get a lot of stick for the schools we went to,” says a former cabinet minister. “He hasn’t.”
Perhaps this is because of the widespread belief that Sunak is from a working-class background. Four advisers tell me that Sunak’s background is similar to Javid’s. It is not. Sunak is not an immigrant success story, but an English public school and Oxbridge success story. He is the product of an upper-middle-class education – something both he and his parents recognize.
“Most of us get a lot of stick for the schools we went to,” says a former cabinet minister. “He hasn’t.”
His mother, Usha Sunak, when interviewed by Simon Gunn and Rachel Bell for their book Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl, put her sons’ confidence down to the schools they went to and draws a comparison with her own experience (she went to the Shabaan Robert Secondary School, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania). “They can stand up and talk at any time in front of a crowd,” she said. “I can’t do that as well as them.”
Rishi has said in the past, “I am very lucky to have been at these places. It does put me in an elite in society. I always consider myself professional middle class. I don’t think being Asian is a defining feature.” The family were solidly middle class. They drove an Audi, had a gardener (now a Nigel Farage fan, according to his Facebook page) and, as working parents, had childcare. From Spindlewood Close it’s a 20-minute walk to Usha’s pharmacy.
Even if being Asian may not have felt a defining feature for Sunak, being Hindu is conspicuously important. Sunak does not eat beef and wears a red mouli thread on his wrist – visible when he holds up the chancellor’s red box on budget day, next to the blue one saying “Dada”, made by one of his daughters. He has said that he spent weekend time, when he wasn’t watching Saints play, at the Vedic Society Hindu Temple, where he was part of the Bal Vikas youth movement.
Southampton is largely a tolerant city, according to Kuti Miah, a prominent local figure who owns a chain of restaurants, including the large Kuti’s Brasserie on the seafront, where Sunak held his wedding reception for 200 guests in 2009. “The community is very well integrated,” he says. “I am a British Muslim; I voted Brexit.” To his mind the Sunaks, originally Punjabi Hindus are, like himself, “passionately British”.
Sunak has cited only one occasion that he was abused on the grounds of race: that was in a fast food restaurant in the mid-Nineties with his brother and sister. The racist slur used by a group on the next table not only “stung”, but took him by surprise. “It was the first time I’d experienced it. The p-word. I still remember it. It seared in my memory. You can be insulted in very different ways.” He adds that he couldn’t “conceive of that happening today”.
Sunak’s father, Yashvir, came to the UK from Kenya as a teenager in the mid-Sixties and studied medicine at the University of Liverpool, graduating in 1974. After marrying Usha they lived in Tennyson Road in the Portswood area of Southampton, sharing an Edwardian semi-detached house with another family. Yashvir seems to be universally liked – even his old milkman remembers him fondly. Former patients describe him as a diligent and caring man.
The racist slur used by a group on the next table not only “stung”, but took him by surprise. “It was the first time I’d experienced it.”
Usha too is much loved. Rishi remembers people approaching his parents during their Saturday morning shop in Asda in the Marlands Shopping Centre to say thank you for all their hard work. “Later,” he says, “I worked at my mum’s shop. I delivered the medicines to elderly patients who couldn’t pick them up. And they would always take the time to tell me what my mum and dad had done. Not just for them, but for generations of their family. It left a lasting impression on me, and I thought, one day I would love to have that same impact – make the same difference to a community that my mum and dad did.”
Sunak has said that he doesn’t know if his parents ever voted Labour and that “he never talked politics with them”, but he told an Indian television reporter in 2015, “The values of Asian families like mine resonate with the values of the Conservative Party,” and has joked that he passes Norman Tebbit’s rather xenophobic “cricket test” on nationality because he supports England when they play India in Test matches.
It’s early evening when I visit Kuti’s Brasserie. Miah makes a point of telling me that his is Welsh salt marsh lamb, that his chicken is free-range British and that only his king prawns come from Bangladesh. He shows me a promotional video with his catchphrase: “Be British, Love British, Eat British.” Miah has been close friends with the Sunaks for 40 years and first met Rishi when he was wrapped in a blanket aged 6 weeks. It was as a waiter at Kuti’s that Sunak first worked after his A levels. Having been expansive, Miah is now nervous to talk to media. His close friendship with Rishi Sunak’s parents is important; they eat in the restaurant weekly and have not missed their Christmas Eve supper here in 25 years. But he does smile when he remembers Rishi – “A lovely, bright boy,” he says, shaking his head in wonder over all “young Rishi” has achieved.
From Winchester “young Rishi” went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics (PPE). He was known as an affable but sensible student and had a small close-knit group of friends, including Tom Clementi, whose father Sir David is the chairman of the BBC. Sunak had a nice room in the first year of college, one contemporary remembers, and lived in college digs for the full three years; but no one can remember a girlfriend. One student was surprised to hear Sunak is teetotal. “He was always in the bar. I didn’t realize he didn’t drink.”
Another remembers bumping into him on a Saturday at the sort of time most students were sleeping off hangovers. He was walking around with a notepad. “I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘My parents are coming tomorrow so I am devising a walking tour of interesting landmarks in the city.’ ” Although Sunak went to the college ball, a number of alumni believe that he didn’t attend the 20-year college reunion in 2018 “because he didn’t want to be photographed in black tie under large oil paintings – it looks like privilege and he is very good on how things look”. (The contemporary adds that when old friends posted university photos with Sunak, they felt it was being frowned upon by his circle.)
He showed no interest in student politics and no one was surprised when he left (with a first-class degree) that he joined Goldman Sachs, for three years. Colleagues say he sometimes “played the tough guy”, but he was never a cut-throat capitalist code-breaker. “Put it like this: you don’t leave Goldman if you have prospects.”
One thing is clear: school, university and Goldman were fertile ground for networking. He’d make a point of saying to those he thought powerful, “We should keep in touch. It could be useful for both of us.” In 2018, one politico was approached by him and congratulated on a piece of work he’d done on Brexit. “He gave me his mobile and said, ‘We should stay in touch. Ring me any time.’ ”
“He didn’t want to be photographed in black tie under large oil paintings – it looks like privilege and he is very good on how things look.”
From Goldman, Sunak went as a Fulbright scholar to Stanford to do an MBA. A scan through his Facebook reveals the extent of his global connections: many potential future leaders in tech, business and politics. At Stanford he also met his future wife, Akshata Murthy, whose name rarely appears without the suffix “daughter of billionaire businessman NR Narayana Murthy”, founder of Infosys. Akshata is worth some $393 million in her own right and runs her own fashion label. Their wedding in Bangalore in 2009 was attended by 1,000 guests. But an Indian celebrity magazine described it as low-key: “What is interesting is the way the bride and her mother dressed – no dripping diamonds, heavily embroidered wear or gaudy accessories. Both the bride and mother wore subtle make-up, a natural-look hairstyle and what by Indian wedding standards could be considered minimal and basic jewellery.”
Sunak is endearingly bashful and goofy around his wife. She is supportive on a bad day, he has said, and also dispenses “tough love”. Treasury aides say, “They are very sweet together,” and even go to spin classes as a couple. It is revealing that they discuss how to instill drive and resilience in their children. When he sat next to Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state who grew up in racially segregated Alabama, “I had her scribble a note for [my daughters]; they were just little at the time. I just hope when they grow up they can see this experience of someone growing up in those circumstances to end up being as successful as she has been.”
From Stanford he joined the Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) created by Chris – now Sir Christopher – Hohn. TCI targeted businesses it thought badly run (including the London Stock Exchange and ABN Amro). “Hohn is the nearest thing the City has produced to Dominic Cummings in the way he campaigned to change companies, and in his ruthlessness,” says a friend of both. Sunak left TCI with Patrick Degorce, who set up Theleme. Sunak talks of having “cofounded a large investment firm, working with companies from Silicon Valley to Bangalore”. Oddly, the Financial Conduct Authorities Register says that he never had regulatory approval at Theleme, which suggests his role was not as important as he implies. (The Treasury was asked about this, but didn’t respond.) After Theleme, Sunak worked for his billionaire father-in-law’s investment company Catamaran.
Akshata is worth some $393 million in her own right and runs her own fashion label.
Until this point, Sunak’s relationship with politics can be summed up in brief flirtations. In 1997, while still at school, he leafleted for the local Conservative candidate. In the first year of university, he did a week’s work experience in Conservative Campaign Headquarters. He didn’t join any political societies at Oxford and only “re-engaged” briefly after graduating when he canvassed in the Hampstead ultra-marginal for the 2010 election.
Far more important for his future role in the Conservative Party was a close friendship he made at Winchester with journalist James Forsyth. Forsyth joined The Spectator in 2007 and is the quintessence of the magazine; one former editor joked, “We grew him in a test tube.”
Through Forsyth, Sunak was introduced to the fizzing world of new Conservative politics, not least when he was best man at Forsyth’s wedding to Allegra Stratton, the former Newsnight journalist, and they are godparents to each other’s children. Simon Hoggart, the Guardian columnist, described the wedding in Oxfordshire in August 2011 as “a very grand and very jolly affair, attended by lots of famous people”. The pews were “chocka with Cameroonians”, including Matt Hancock, says a guest.
Among the ushers were Ameet Gill, Cameron’s speechwriter, and Rohan Silva, a special adviser in No 10. Sunak’s best-man speech was about his school days with Forsyth, including a joke about biology class and Forsyth’s grasp of reproduction. It was greeted with roaring laughter.
Silva tells an anecdote that illustrates the nature of the party at the time. “Ameet, Rishi and I were the only three brown people there. Rishi gave a brilliant speech. Afterwards I ran to the men’s and found I was at the urinal next to Michael Fallon [then party deputy chair], whom I knew reasonably well from Westminster. He turned to me, todger in hand, and said, ‘Congratulations on an excellent speech.’ I said, ‘Ah, that wasn’t me. That was Rishi.’ He said, ‘Of course. Apologies. You’re David’s speechwriter. Your telltale paw prints were all over it. Very good.’ ”
Silva says Sunak’s nascent interest in politics was encouraged by both Forysth and Dougie Smith. “Dougie is the unsung hero in Rishi’s rise. If anyone should be credited with making him chancellor, he should.” A word about Dougie Smith: he is a bright new member of the Downing Street team, recently brought in by Dominic Cummings as a researcher and strategist. He is married to Munira Mirza, director of the No 10 policy unit. He was co-owner of a company called Fever Parties, which organized orgies. It was with the backing of Smith – “the chancellor-maker” as Silva calls him – that Sunak first got involved with the think tank Policy Exchange, writing on the importance of understanding the Asian community in Britain and heading up the BAME Unit. In that role he co-authored a large study entitled A Portrait of Modern Britain on the growing influence of ethnic minorities in the UK and what that meant for Britain’s future.
“Rishi did that report. Dougie made that happen,” says Silva.
In this way, Sunak is fully enmeshed with the current engine room of power in No 10. This group is tight with Dominic Cummings, who lives a couple of streets from James Forsyth and Allegra Stratton in Islington. “They are always in and out of each other’s houses,” says a friend of both. Stratton also worked with Cass Horowitz on ITV’s Peston show, saw his talent and is said to have recommended him to Sunak, before joining the Treasury herself, in April, as the director of strategic communications.
Sunak’s first stab at a Tory seat was in Hertsmere in 2014. He made it down to the last two but lost out to Oliver Dowden, now minister for culture, media and sport. When William Hague announced he was stepping down from Richmond, one of the safest seats in the country, more than 200 people applied to the local association. Sunak was the one who had the full backing of Hague. “Everyone was telling Cameron that he was an outstanding candidate and that it was vital he got a seat,” says a member of Cameron’s cabinet.
Richmond is the England of dry-stone walls, hill farmers and muddy cattle markets. In many ways the demographics did not fit a candidate like Sunak. But, as another Yorkshire MP puts it, “It’s the posh bit. It’s not your dark satanic mills. It’s like Surrey in the north. There’s almost no deprivation. [Conservative] Central Office will have had a hand in who was picked.”
Sunak made it to the last four. “You make a speech for a few minutes; you take questions for around 30-40 minutes,” Sunak said of standing in front of the 300 local members at Tennants auction house in Leyburn on October 18, 2014. He played his lack of political experience as a strength, saying it was important to be able to bring outside experience into Westminster and raise “the quality of debate and… make better decisions as a result”. He stressed “having lived abroad”. Ron Kirk, the chairman of the Richmond Conservative Association, said that Sunak took more than 50 per cent of the vote. “It showed how far Cameron’s modernization of the party had gone,” says a source close to the former PM.
The Sunaks bought a Georgian mansion set in 12 acres in Northallerton. (They also have a $9 million house in Kensington, west London, a flat on Old Brompton Road and an apartment in Santa Monica, California. They fly first class with their two daughters, Krishna and Anoushka.) Locals describe parties with liveried staff pouring champagne from magnums. “And that’s good,” says the MP of a nearby constituency. “That’s what they like. He also spends a lot of time writing to people personally, following up on things and dropping in.”
In Sunak’s version, it was Akshata and her father who encouraged him most in politics, with Narayana Murthy even knocking on doors in Richmond wearing a Team Rishi sweatshirt. Because of her background in the spotlight in India, “My wife was able to understand what it is like and what it would mean,” to be the wife of a hard-working MP, Sunak says. “Not just the sacrifices, but also what the positives are. What you are able to do when you’re giving yourself to helping other people, and how fulfilling that is. So she and my father-in-law were the ones, in the end, who said, ‘You should go for this.’ ”
Certainly Narayana Murthy was known to senior Tories. David Cameron was photographed with him in 2010, and George Osborne met him on trade visits to India as chancellor. Akshata was at a lunch hosted by Osborne for Anglo-Indian business because of her role in her father’s global empire. At the time, Osborne was not aware that she was married to Sunak, but Akshata soon put that right. One guest says, “She seemed very keen for Rishi to get on.”
This was the observation of Anjali Puri, an Indian journalist who came to Westminster to interview Sunak at around that time: “Sunak speaks basic Hindi and Punjabi, and an accented desi [South Asian] word pops up occasionally, among awfully British expressions like ‘brilliant’ and even, ‘Oh, crikey.’ ” Sunak told Puri that he had also exercised influence over the Murthys. “They quite like the United States, have done a lot of business there, but I believe I have shifted them over time to a very pro-UK approach.” Puri says Sunak put down his fork and added, “Which one is more pro-entrepreneurship? Which supports education better? Which offers a better business climate? Where is corporate governance better? Which is the best place to bring up a family? Where are society values better? I think I have swung them to a pro-British outlook on life.”
Sunak frequently praises Akshata’s brother, Rohan Murthy, saying that he is the cleverest person he knows, other than his wife’s uncle, a noted scientist: “IQ and degrees coming out of his ears.”
But Sunak’s own brother and sister are also success stories. Sanjay is a psychologist with five degrees, while Raakhi, who followed Rishi to Oxford, also has an MPhil from Cambridge. She is currently based in New York as the Department for International Development’s “Covid-19 United Nations engagement and strategy lead”.
One of my friends says, “If you have an Asian mother, Rishi Sunak is your ultimate nightmare. For the past few months all I’ve heard is how I could’ve done as well as Rishi.” From childhood to the City to his time now in government, Sunak seems to be a genius at pleasing the powerful people around him: his parents; hedge-fund bosses; his father-in-law; Dominic Cummings; and those in the Tory party machinery who want to find their next champion. In becoming such a young and powerful chancellor he’s more than met their expectations, their ambitions. But as he prepares this country’s most important budget since 1945, the big unanswered question is whether Rishi Sunak’s own ambition is as relentless and unstoppable.