When Rishi Sunak was named the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020, barely five years after first entering the parliament, he was on his way up in UK politics. His handling of the Covid-19 pandemic catapulted “Dishy Rishi” into a household name.
At the time, he was so close to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that many feared that his appointment as finance minister could compromise the independence of the Treasury. Some in the governing Conservative Party and among the British public even began to see him as the next leader of the country. But just two years on, his road to the top appears as to be as steep as his decline.
On August 12, at a Conservative Party hustings at Cheltenham in the south-west of England, as he made his own run for prime minister, Sunak revealed that Johnson no longer returns his calls and messages. The revelation, like Sunak put it, was “unsurprising”. After all, it was the former chancellor’s resignation, weeks before, that eventually resulted in the early end of Johnson’s tumultuous premiership.
It appears that in bringing down Johnson, Sunak may have also negatively impacted his own chances at the top position. He is now so far behind the other finalist that it is widely expected that foreign minister Liz Truss – despite her wooden deliveries, propensity for gaffes, and commitment to dressing like the first British PM Margaret Thatcher – is going to win the race to be the next leader of the country. The final result of the vote by 160,000 members of his party will be announced on Monday.
Sudden fall from grace
There’s a long list of factors that are understood to have contributed to Sunak’s sudden fall from grace. Some Tory party members question his loyalty and blame him for the rebellion that ended Johnson’s premiership, while others believe that under him, the party will not be able to defeat the Labour Party in the next general election. Among the public, the revelations that he held a US green card for a while when he was chancellor, and that his wife Akshata Murthy – daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy – did not pay taxes on her international income as a non-domicile resident, have irreparably damaged his reputation. It does not help that he was first chancellor to be fined for breaking the rules by attending parties at 10 Downing Street – the PM’s official residence – during a Covid-related lockdown.
A day after Johnson resigned, Sunak announced his bid to become the prime minister (and Conservative Party leader) with a slick video and with the website ready4rishi.com. “We need to restore trust in our politics. We need to rebuild our economy. And we need to reunite the country”, reads his website. But eagle-eyed observers were quick to spot that while the domain for his new website was registered on July 6, two days after his own resignation, Sunak had previously registered for the domain readyforrishi.com in December 2021 – six months ahead of the end of the final political crisis, suggesting the former chancellor had been planning the run for a while.
In his resignation letter, Sunak said, “I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth. Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one.”
An immigrant’s story
Sunak, 42, was born in Southampton, southern England, to parents Yashvir, a general practitioner, and Usha Sunak, a pharmacist. Although both his parents were born in East Africa, they are of Indian-origin.
“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 told Business Standard newspaper in a 2020 interview.
Sunak has long-emphasised, including in the video announcing his run, on his heritage as the son of humble immigrants. But critics say this stands in contrast to the chancellor’s actual privileged upbringing, and that he is out of touch with the concerns of the ordinary people.
Sunak, like five previous chancellors, completed his schooling at Winchester College, one of the most prestigious schools in the world, where a year of boarding costs an eye-watering £45,934. He then graduated, like three quarters of all British PMs, from Oxford University – where he studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a course preferred by those with aspirations to be in government.
He also has an MBA from the top-ranked Stanford University in the US. The Sunday Times said Sunak – who, after graduating, worked in the private sector, including at Goldman Sachs – became a “multimillionaire in his mid-twenties” and his wife and he in 2022 became the 222nd wealthiest people in the UK with a combined wealth of £730 million.
Britain is experiencing its worst cost of living crisis in decades and news about the former chancellor’s wealth has angered public. Truss has repeatedly attacked him for raising taxes up to the highest level in 70 years, and tellingly, he has gone from being referred to as “the Disney Prince” to “Mr Tax”.
Just days into the leadership race, a clip from his university days went viral on social media.
“I have friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper-class, I have friends who are, you know, working-class. Well, not working class,” Rishi Sunak said in clip from the BBC documentary Middle Classes – Their Rise & Sprawl. “I mix and match and then I go to see kids from an inner-city state school and tell them to apply to Oxford and talk to them about people like me. And then I shock them at the end of chatting to them for half an hour and tell them I was at Winchester and one of my best friends is from Eton or whatever. And then they’re like: ‘Oh Ok’.”
His comments were panned for being excessively posh, and the former chancellor blamed his comments on his youth. But the hits kept piling up: in one interview with ITV, Sunak, when talking about being photographed at a McDonalds, said, “If I’m with my daughters then we get the wrap.”
Critics were quick to note that McDonalds stopped selling the breakfast wraps in March 2020, and the entire stint appeared to be choreographed to make Sunak seem more everyday.
After his resignation, his wife brought out tea and biscuits for photographers camped outside his residence in designer mugs that were revealed to cost £38 each. Sunak was also accused of diverting funds from ‘deprived urban areas’ after another damning video surfaced. In it, he is heard telling grassroots Conservatives that, “I managed to start changing the funding formulas, to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserve because we inherited a bunch of formulas from Labour that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone.”
A source in Sunak’s team told the Daily Express recently that his supporters believe that he could still pull-off a shock win. If that happens, he will become Britain’s second PM from an ethnic minority ever; the first being former PM Benjamin Disraeli, who was Jewish. And despite all his missteps, it is certainly not difficult to believe that Sunak could come close to winning, or even go as far as to pull an upset. In January, he was polling even better than Johnson and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer on net favourability.
As opposed to Truss, who has questionable success in public speaking, the articulate and well-tailored Sunak certainly has a better temperament to be the face of the party and the country. His Covid briefings are said to have imbued a sense of confidence in the public at a difficult time.
And while Truss has recently turned to Brexit, Sunak has won favour by backing to leave the EU from the very beginning. He has also consistently held a tough stance on immigration into the UK. Theoretically, he also supports low taxes and reduced government involvement in the economy. Though his most popular move is actually the furlough scheme which protected millions of jobs during the pandemic with the government paying people’s wages.
Under caretaker PM Johnson, the government has been out of action since July, even as Britain is facing serious problems on every front, from climate to economy. It is certainly possible that the competition may hinge entirely on the answer to who, between Truss and Sunak, could hit the ground running.
On one hand, Truss has a long history in government and has been at the forefront of UK’s policy on Ukraine after the Russian invasion; on the other hand, Sunak, despite his short government career, was somewhat successful in his handling of the pandemic. Only time will tell if Sunak’s former Golden Boy image, which served him well in the beginning, can carry him through to the end.