Rishi Sunak: The chemist’s son who may have found the formula for leadership

The chancellor’s star is still rising but he arrived here somewhat out of the blue, writes Tom Peck

Tuesday 06 October 2020 13:01
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The chancellor has been a calm presence during the pandemic
The chancellor has been a calm presence during the pandemic

On any given weekday morning in the 1990s, the ambitious, well-to-do parents of Southampton and their ambitious well-to-do children could be found somewhere along Hill Lane, on the edge of the grand parks and gardens of Southampton Common.

At the bottom end was, and is, the independent King Edward VI School, the most prestigious and most coveted school in town. And at the top end, on the corner with the high street, was Sunak Pharmacy, run by Usha Sunak, wife of the local GP Yashvir Sunak.

But the Sunaks never went downhill. They only travelled upwards. Up the M3, to be precise, with young Rishi and his younger brother in the back of the car, making the daily 12-mile journey to Winchester College.

A regular frequenter of the Sunak Pharmacy in those days, who has politely requested to remain anonymous, says that no step over the threshold to collect the weekly prescription could be completed without a comprehensive update as to what the Sunak boys had been up to at Winchester.

“She was so proud that the boys had got into Winchester,” our informant says. “So, so proud. It really wasn’t the obvious thing to do. There was a perfectly good school in Southampton, just a few hundred yards away, that did not necessitate a daily run to Winchester in the middle of rush hour. But she had big ambitions for them. She was professional, very businesslike, she wasn’t one for chit-chat and time-wasting, but when she did launch into something you can certainly guess what the topic was.”

In more recent times, stories have emerged of the young Rishi sitting in his school uniform doing the books in the back of the shop, though given Winchester day boys don’t ordinarily get to go home til after 9pm, quite when that particular vignette might have occurred is unclear.

Sunak himself has spoken of the “considerable sacrifices” that were made to afford the vast fees (currently £41,000 a year), when he did not gain a scholarship place.

As is now well known, Winchester begat Oxford, begat Goldman Sachs, begat Stanford, begat colossal private wealth via marriage, begat the House of Commons, begat 11 Downing Street. And brave would be he who bet against what it might beget next.

But there is no doubting which of these leaps Sunak himself considers the most significant, and it was undoubtedly the first. Many of his new colleagues in the Treasury say the chancellor likes to talk about Winchester, a lot.

Throughout his political and pre-political career, Sunak has never avoided an opportunity to talk about how proud he is to be British. He supports England, not India, at cricket, for example, something of a rarity, even for the British-born son of a Kenyan and Tanzanian Hindu Punjabi.

What is more unusual, perhaps, is the fierce and unashamed pride of which he speaks of his school days. There are no shortage of old Etonians in politics, and a few Wykehamists too, as Winchester College alumni are known. Most have been trained, subconsciously perhaps, to be bashful about the privileges of their upbringing, principally as a consequence of their assumed entitlement to it.

The proud chemist’s son is rather different. In his final year he was appointed head boy, or Senior Commoner Prefect, as it is known. And in the summer before heading to Oxford, he waited tables at Kuti’s Brasserie, the rather fancy, award-winning Indian restaurant, set inside Southampton’s Royal Pier. One suspects he is the first and last former Winchester head boy to do so.

But it has certainly liberated him to speak of Winchester with a kind of giddy pride others might be more hesitant to express. In a podcast recorded last year with pupils at a school in his constituency, he described how he 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.”

It hardly seems beyond the bounds of possibility that the young Sunak might have made it to Oxford even with a moderately less illustrious secondary education, but the charming, self-effacing, down-to-earth everyman, the Goldman banker and the curry house waiter, might never have come into being.

Or as one childhood acquaintance describes it: “His parents’ extraordinary devotion to him – and his apparently obedient embrace of all the opportunities this brought him – that is key to what he’s become.”

What is striking, arguably unique, for a politician so clearly marked out for great things is his rise seemingly without trace. I have spoken to six of his contemporaries at Winchester College, and none can remember a thing about him. That he was even head boy has escaped most of them.

“I remember nothing about him,” said one. “Sadly, I remember double murderer Rurik Jutting better.”

Rishi Sunak admits further job losses possible as he unveils new support scheme

What is known is that his best friend from those days was James Forsyth, now political editor of The Spectator. On the day of his wedding to Allegra Stratton, then national editor of ITV News, Sunak was best man. These days, Stratton works as Sunak’s head of “strategic communications”, and it is under her strategic eye that Sunak has conspired to become the only Conservative politician whose star has risen beneath the coronavirus crisis. Partly, it is because it is he who has been able to announce huge amounts of public spending, which he always announces on social media beneath his own personal branding and his own signature, to the growing annoyance of party colleagues.

Ms Stratton is considered the frontrunner for the soon-to-be-appointed job of official government spokesperson, so it may well be her turn to give speeches for her friend on a daily basis.

From Winchester, he moved on to Lincoln College, Oxford, which happens to be one of the very smallest Oxbridge colleges of all, with just 70 undergraduates in each year group. When he became chancellor earlier this year, the WhatsApp groups of his contemporaries lit up not with embarrassing stories about their newly famous classmate, but with stunned surprise that this great boy wonder could have moved among them for years without ever being noticed.

“He certainly never came in the college bar,” said one. “Not once in three years. I would be prepared to bet he never once set foot in it.”

Such an eventuality is partly explained by his lifetime of strict teetotalism, though none can recall a single sighting of him in the dining hall either. One female contemporary is understood to have been a rare withstander of a brief Rishi charm offensive, though that appears to constitute the entirety of his mark upon college life.

This, to be clear, is not normal. Young proto-politicians put themselves about. They run things, they stand for things, they see the pasture before them and they contrive to make it all about them. That is what politicians do. The schoolboy Bill Clinton took himself off to the White House to get photographed shaking hands with JFK.

At Winchester, 20 years before Sunak’s time, a young Seumas Milne ran a mock election campaign promising a Maoist revolution in Britain (other similar mock elections would come later, most notably in December 2019). This, for fledgling politicos, is what counts as normal.

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, even Theresa May all flocked to the Oxford Union like moths to a flame. It took Jacob Rees-Mogg a matter of weeks to be lampooned in the student newspaper’s “Pushy Fresher” column (principally for the crime of having a landline installed in his bedroom, so he could manage his investment portfolio). Tony Blair swerved student politics but did front a rock and roll band instead.

Mr Sunak is understood to have got on with his work, and that’s about it. Even the Oxford University Conservative Association is unable to boast of him as a past member.

But it would be wrong to say he wasn’t a radical, in his own way. He is 40 years old, which means that he came of age in the late Nineties, when Toryism was about as fashionable as halitosis. It is not too much of a generalisation to say that the bright young things of Sunak’s era were, for the most part, beholden to Blairism, and remain so, even now.

By 2010, bright, ambitious, no longer all that young, men and women all across Whitehall were well into their high-flying careers without ever having really entertained the possibility that the offices of state they served would one day be filled with Tories.

When a new dawn was breaking in 1997, Sunak, then editor of the Winchester College newspaper, was writing mournful articles about the dangers of the EU. At 17 years of age, Sunak was worried that Blair “has plans for the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and membership of an eventual European Superstate”.

Ironicists may choose to observe that it may yet be withdrawal from, not membership of, the European project that precipitates said break-up, and quite possibly on Sunak’s watch.

But when William Hague was on the log flumes at Thorpe Park, and telling wild tales about how much beer he could drink, and driving around the country in a white van, promising to “keep the pound”, Sunak’s loyalties did not waver, and nor did his ideological cause.

Eighteen years later he had replaced William Hague as the MP for Richmond in Yorkshire and had already been spotted as crucial to his party’s future. The possibility of an In/Out EU referendum was looming, and he was called in to see the then prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer, David Cameron and George Osborne, who were hoping to persuade him to join their Remain campaign.

George Osborne tells Tim Shipman in All Out War of how Sunak was unfailingly polite throughout but, ultimately, clear that he would not be joining their cause. It was one of the earliest of many moments, in the first and ultimately last year of Cameron’s second term, when the two men realised the fight they had conspired to pick was going to be harder than they realised.  

Sunak, a 36-year-old backbencher and House of Commons newbie, played no great role in the EU referendum. Why would he? But he claims to have based his decision to back Leave on the basis that, in the world of tomorrow, “having the flexibility and the nimbleness to adapt would be of enormous value to us”.

Speaking at virtual Tory conference on Monday

Fifty years of Euroscepticism within the Conservative Party essentially boils down to one argument. For Bill Cash and the like, the problem with Europe has always been admirably simple. That in the 1970s the British people voted to join a trade bloc, and in the decades since that trade bloc has mutated into something else entirely. It has a parliament, it has powerful officials, which they consider are appointed without due democratic process (a dubious claim but one for another day). It has a flag, an anthem, it has common policies on fishing and agriculture, it has designs on a common defence policy, and much of it has a single currency. And all this without the British people having been asked to see if they mind. To them, the economic benefits have stopped being worth the political cost.

This is a coherent argument but not one that had ever been able, on its own, to persuade enough of the British people that the economic self-harm of leaving was the correct remedy to the perceived price in democracy and sovereignty.

Which meant that in 40 years of trying and failing to persuade, other less convincing arguments emerged. By 2016, the idea that there were actual trading and economic benefits to be had from leaving the world’s largest unified trading bloc had taken hold. But not even the likes of Bill Cash ever really believed them.

Michel Barnier likes to say with regularity that in four-and-half years of negotiations and meetings with UK politicians and officials of every political hue, “no one has been able to show me the added value of Brexit”.

By perceiving Brexit as both a political and economic win, rather than one being a price worth paying for the other, Sunak is as much beholden to what has come to be known as a “cakeism” as his boss.  He has never offered anything by way of elucidation on where this added value, which neither Michel Barnier nor any credible economist anywhere in the world can see, might be found.

The more convincing explanation is that he remains guided by the same ideological principles expressed in the Winchester College newspaper more than two decades ago. For now, no meaningful alternative explanation has been offered.

In the early 2000s, back when boom and bust had been abolished, and the bonus pools at the investment banks were overflowing, the law firms, the management consultancies and the banks swarmed around Oxbridge, waiting to hoover up the likes of Sunak. It is no great surprise that he wandered straight into Goldman Sachs. What is arguably more surprising is that he wandered out again three years later, in 2004, to complete an MBA at Stanford University, in the US. It was here where he met his now wife, Akshata Murthy, the daughter of one of India’s richest men, the IT systems entrepreneur NR Narayana Murthy.

Sunak leading one of the coronavirus briefings

It made Sunak far more famous in India than he would be in his own country for many years. (Conversely, his billionaire father-in-law was able to spend some of the 2015 general election pushing his son-in-law’s leaflets through letterboxes in North Yorkshire, with scarcely a soul knowing who he was.)

It also made him very rich indeed, with his wife’s personal fortune estimated to run well in to the hundreds of millions. It was this wealth that purchased the grand constituency pile, a sprawling Georgian manor that, whenever it appears in the newspapers, tends to be alongside the words: “The Maharajah of the Dales.”

Sunak himself doesn’t appear to mind the occasional lazy jokes about his ethnicity. He has been known to make them himself, saying in a speech that, while out canvassing a local man, on discovering the man before him was the new prospective member of parliament, said: “I liked Haguey. But he was a bit pale. This one’s got a better tan.”

There is only so long, and so high, of course that a star can rise without its heat being felt along the way.

The conventional narrative now is that Johnson is doing a terrible job, but everyone loves Rishi, and the Tory party being what it is, it will find the right moment to dump Boris, bring in the bright young cabin boy, and crush Labour again.

But just as Sunak has never been fully pressed to explain his reasoning on Brexit, which does not appear to hold water, he may also face a reckoning on the terms of his own soaring popularity.

Who is Rishi Sunak?

Barely two weeks ago, one of his many schemes, Eat Out to Help Out, was considered an incredible success. Keeping the hospitality business going, and at the same time incentivising an anxious public that it was OK to get out of the house. But the virus is resurgent again now, and NHS tracers are discovering that by far the most common activity undergone by those who have tested positive is eating out.

The furlough scheme has arguably kept millions free from complete destitution, quite possibly even kept anarchy off the streets. But the costs of all Sunak’s schemes run into the hundreds of billions, there is anxiety bordering on outright terror on the Conservative benches as to how it will all be paid for. And it will be up to Sunak to find a way to do it.

Hard work and an easy way with people tend to be the most potent weapon of the lucky politician. But the very luckiest politicians tend also to have good timing. When hard times come, they often turn out to have been doing other things.

In this regard, Mr Sunak is as unlucky as they come. In recent years, William Hague liked to say, with regard to his unfortunate time as Tory leader, that “someone had to do the night shift”.

This time round, someone will quite possibly have to do the hardest, most gruelling shift in decades. And it seems unlikely his current boss will do the heavy lifting for him.

Only one thing has been certain, in the politics of recent years. That when the future arrives, it bears precious little resemblance to what had once even been the immediately foreseeable version of itself.

But you don’t have to look too far ahead to see a brutalising economic reckoning with reality, in the forms of both Brexit and coronavirus.

It is possible such events will present opportunities for charming young men from Winchester College, quite possibly aided and abetted by an iteration of the Conservative Party that has rarely been more sociopathically regicidal. But, as the past few years have so visibly shown, you can only defenestrate people, not problems.

As it happens, Sunak is the sixth Wykehamist chancellor of the exchequer, but only one has ever made it one step further.

That was Henry Addington, prime minister between 1801 and 1804, and remembered principally for the Treaty of Amiens, in which Great Britain made many concessions to broker a flimsy peace with the Napoleonic Empire that lasted barely a year.

The details are all publicly available, if you google the term “The Napoleonic Wars”. Though, needless to say, now is not the first time these islands have not had the upper hand against the continent at large.

The affairs of nations and ambitious young men can, like the M3 between Southampton and Winchester, go up as well as down. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. As things stand, the world is Sunak’s to lose, which all too often turns out to be the problem.

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