Rishi Sunak: the polished ‘tech bro’ with low-tax dreams

Rishi Sunak is renowned at Westminster for burnishing his brand in preparation to make a bid for the top job – but it now appears he may get the opportunity much sooner than expected. If he does succeed Boris Johnson in No 10, he will be one of the wealthiest prime ministers in history. And if it happens before his 42nd birthday, in mid-May, he will be the youngest in more than 250 years.

Well-tailored and whip-smart, the chancellor has been assiduously wooing Conservative MPs, and polls suggest he is well-liked by the public – or certainly more so than his beleaguered boss. An Ipsos Mori poll taken in the past few days gave Sunak a net favourability rating of +7, against Johnson’s -39, and -14 for the Labour leader, Keir Starmer.

But with a cost of living crisis looming, some at Westminster are questioning whether Sunak’s political worldview is the right one for this moment – and asking if he is “streetwise” enough to make the move next door.

The son of Punjabi immigrants from east Africa, Sunak studied at Winchester public school before graduating from Oxford in philosophy, politics and economics.

While his classmates were partying, the nerdy Sunak became president of the Oxford Investment Club and he went on to pursue a career in the City, breaking off to take an MBA at Stanford in the US, where he met his wife, Akshata Murthy.

They certainly wouldn’t need to raise funds for wallpaper. Murthy owns a 0.91% stake in Infosys, the Indian tech giant founded by her father, according to its annual report.

The chancellor’s investments from his days as a hedge fund manager are tucked away in a blind trust – but Murthy’s share of the family firm alone is worth more than £700m at current prices, and the pair own a string of properties, including a substantial Georgian house in his North Yorkshire constituency.

The richest ever prime minister, according to Guinness World Records, was Edward Stanley the 14th Earl of Derby (1799-1869), with the equivalent of about £444m today. And there was Archibald Rosebery (1847-1929), a hereditary peer with an ancestral castle who married Hannah de Rothschild, heir to a banking fortune.

Sunak and his wife were granted planning permission last year to build a swimming pool, gym and steam room in their paddock. In 2020, he posed for pre-budget photos with a £180 coffee mug.

He was already a junior minister under Theresa May, but it was the fellow Brexiter Boris Johnson who gave him the plum role of chief secretary to the Treasury just four years after he was first elected to represent leafy Richmond.

Sunak came out early for Johnson, penning a joint op-ed with two other young MPs, Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden. “The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us,” they warned melodramatically in a Times article coordinated by Johnson’s campaign team. All three men went on to be cabinet ministers under Johnson – though Jenrick was unceremoniously sacked in last autumn’s reshuffle.

Sunak’s peers say his time at Stanford, in the California sunshine, was key to informing his politics, as well as his penchant for hoodies and sliders. “He thinks of himself as a tech bro. He kind of believes it, it’s infected him,” said one person who has worked with him.

That makes Sunak, as well as an evangelist for innovation and a fan of low taxes, sceptical of how much good the government can do by meddling in the economy. Sunak is also firmly committed to balancing the books – both because he believes in it economically, and because he thinks it’s a crucial political dividing line with Labour.

The latter informed decisions such as insisting on an increase in national insurance contributions (NICs) to fund the NHS and social care; cutting the aid budget, and reversing the £20-a-week rise in universal credit that helped some of the UK’s poorest families through the pandemic.

Perhaps ironically, the decision Sunak is best known for – the furlough scheme, which paid millions of people’s wages during the crisis – is one that cuts against his political instincts.

He embraced the need for a big, generous scheme to protect jobs in the extraordinary conditions of the pandemic, when the government was literally ordering businesses to close, but was keen to turn the spending taps off again as soon as possible.

In November 2020 he was forced into a last-minute U-turn, extending furlough just hours before it was due to come to an end, as the Treasury belatedly realised that abruptly withdrawing support as Covid cases rose once again could be disastrous.

Today, with inflation rocketing and fuel bills set to jump in April, Sunak’s national insurance rise is deeply contentious. His likely leadership rival Liz Truss let it be known that she had challenged it in cabinet at the time, and the leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has called for it to be cancelled.

That’s one reason some colleagues are sceptical about Sunak’s low tax, small state politics, particularly given the Tories’ new electoral coalition, which since 2019 runs through a swath of former Labour seats where voters have been promised “levelling up”.

“We’ve got an entirely new voter base in an entirely new part of the country. Cutting spending to reduce the deficit isn’t going to do it for them; it’s not 2010,” said one Tory aide, adding: “The voters of Bolton North East didn’t rush to the polling station holding a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.”

That concern was echoed by a frontbencher who attended one of Sunak’s recent meetings with MPs on the cost of living crisis – which turned out to be a thinly veiled leadership pitch.

“Rishi wants to be like Nigel Lawson, but he [Lawson] set out a theoretical, foundational understanding of where the country was and where he could take it. He was the leader of political thought at the time, coming out of a time when we were over-regulated, where the state was too big.

“Modern politics is not in the same place, it doesn’t matter whether Rishi thinks it should be or even if I think it should be. Boris is actually closer to where the public is. But the Treasury has somehow convinced itself that what the party wants is hairshirt fiscal austerity. It’s bollocks, utter bollocks.” One economist said Sunak was “a lot like Philip Hammond, just with a bit more charisma”.

His defenders say there’s reason for his fiscal caution: he believes he was only able to spend an extraordinary £400bn on cushioning the economic impact of Covid because of the fiscal repair work done by his predecessors.

“He very much believes if it wasn’t for the decisions made by Hammond and [George] Osborne before him, he wouldn’t have been able to act in that way,” says an aide.

They also claim the clamour for state intervention on issues such as energy price rises is conditioned by the unprecedented support put in place during the pandemic. “Covid broke maths,” the aide says, suggesting it is Sunak’s job now to inject some realism.

And they point to the fact he was already warning about inflation and its potential impact on the public finances in December 2020, before it was widely seen as a looming problem.

The chancellor’s scepticism about the government’s net zero targets, or at least the state’s role in achieving them, also concerns some colleagues – though it warms the hearts of those Tory backbenchers who fear the consequences of green policies for their constituents’ pockets.

Treasury insiders describe Sunak with respect rather than warmth. They appreciate his undeniable intellectual ability, decisiveness and dedication to hard work – but some say his smooth veneer is hard to penetrate.

One official who has worked closely with the chancellor describes many of his relationships as “transactional”. “All his interactions with you are about: he wants something, can he get it? And then it’s over. There’s very little forming a human relationship or bond with anyone.”

Colleagues also say they have always been conscious of Sunak’s intense ambition. He was unexpectedly made chancellor when Sajid Javid resigned rather than accept a plan hatched by Dominic Cummings to sack Javid’s advisers and set up a new joint team handpicked by No 10.

At the time, Sunak was derided as “chino” – chancellor in name only – for accepting the bargain, but insiders say with Cummings out, the Treasury effectively took control of the team, leaving No 10 with little economics expertise of its own.

“No 10 is just so chaotic, the Treasury spends a lot of time managing the chaos,” said one Whitehall-watcher.

As well as savvy economic advisers, Sunak employs Cass Horowitz – co-founder of a creative agency called The Clerkenwell Brothers – to manage his personal brand, which is carefully honed with slick social media posts and branded hoodies.

Treasury old-timers looked on with something approaching horror in the summer of 2020 when posters advertising the “eat out to help out” scheme were plastered across cafes and restaurants up and down the country, featuring a prominent facsimile of Sunak’s signature. Research later suggested the £850m scheme had contributed to one-sixth of Covid clusters over that summer, though the Treasury rejects the claim.

Sunak’s Labour opposite number, Rachel Reeves, has repeatedly pointed to his tendency to disappear, rather than face difficult questions.

That was a tactic pioneered by May, who was dubbed “submarine May” when she was in David Cameron’s cabinet. It served her well in emerging unscathed from six years as home secretary – but perhaps masked her shortcomings as a campaigner.

A Labour source pointed out that Sunak tends to be prickly and irritable when attacked by Reeves across the dispatch box. “You can see it in his face: he hates it.”

Colleagues on his own side of the House of Commons also fret about whether he has the political battle-scars to succeed in the top job. One former cabinet minister pointed to Sunak abruptly ending a TV interview when he was repeatedly asked about his support for Johnson.

“The interview he gave this week where he walked out as he was asked for his support was deranged. And actually you know, it’s made people think – is he a bit green? He has not had a long time in politics actually, he’s been thrust into this huge position at a time of complete chaos but is he streetwise?”

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