Will Rishi Sunak's luck hold? Photo: © TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Will Rishi Sunak’s luck hold?

The PM-in-waiting was admired during the pandemic. But as the debt piles up that might not last
January 23, 2021

Quietly and almost without anyone noticing, Rishi Sunak has become the second most powerful politician in the land. Less than two years ago, he was Parliamentary Under Secretary for Local Government. When he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer last February he was 39 years old—the third youngest chancellor in British history after Randolph Churchill in 1886 and George Osborne in 2010. The nearest comparison perhaps is with the rise of John Major. But while Major was 10 years in the Commons before he became chancellor, Sunak entered No 11 just four and a half years after becoming an MP. In addition, Major had been an assiduous Young Conservative, local councillor and chair of a housing committee. Sunak had no such grassroots background, nor had he been a special adviser or parliamentary researcher, two standard routes into the Commons.

In 1852, when Disraeli was offered the Exchequer, he demurred, saying that “it was a branch of which I have not knowledge.” But his Prime Minister, Lord Derby, put his mind at rest, saying: “They give you the figures.” Then it seemed easy. Today it is horrendously difficult. Less than six weeks after reaching No 11, Sunak had to present his first budget at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. He had, in his biographer Michael Ashcroft’s words, “a burden of responsibility the like of which few of his predecessors could claim to have faced.” He confronted it boldly, injecting vast sums of money into the economy, but in the process set the national debt on course to exceed national income for the first time in many decades. After a decade of austerity, this was an almighty U-turn, but there appeared no alternative. His budget last March inaugurated a new era in politics—an end to austerity, an end also to traditional Tory nostrums of restraint in public spending and a smaller state. It was the sort of budget one might have expected from a Labour government. “He’s eating our breakfast,” a Labour insider told Ashcroft. 

Even so the budget was out of date almost as soon as it was delivered, and there have had to be further and even larger injections. Government spending, for the first time in our history, exceeds a trillion pounds. A Conservative MP apparently commented ruefully that in the general election, the party had insisted that Jeremy Corbyn did not have a magic money tree; but now the Conservatives seem to have discovered a magic money forest. 

Rishi Sunak has injected twice as much into the economy as Gordon Brown did in 2008. The real analogy is Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which also saved an economy on the brink of ruin. Like Roosevelt, but unlike Brown, Sunak is a brilliant communicator and a skilful self-publicist. In consequence, the new Chancellor remains unusually popular, and by far the favourite for the succession to Boris Johnson. Even as he started to struggle with painful decisions on tax and the phasing-out of emergency support, a January poll registered a +24 net positive rating for his Covid-19 response, against strong negative scores for Johnson and other Cabinet ministers. Moreover, although he apparently has not cultivated acolytes among Conservative MPs, he does not appear to have aroused the jealousy and resentment that generally attaches itself to political high-fliers. “We take it as read,” Graham Brady, 1922 Committee chair  is reported to have told Sunak at one of its meetings to thunderous applause, “that everyone thinks you are brilliant.” 

[su_pullquote]“‘We take it as read,’ said chair of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady to Sunak, ‘that everyone thinks you are brilliant’”[/su_pullquote]

But in July 2020, the mask began to slip when it was pointed out that he had been illustrating his announcements on social media during the Covid crisis with Brand Rishi graphics that made hardly any reference to the government of which he was a member. Of course, like all ambitious politicians, he insists that he does not seek the top job. But should the proverbial bus run over Boris Johnson, it is difficult to believe that he would refuse—even if, unlike some of his colleagues, he probably wouldn’t be driving the bus.

What is the secret of Sunak’s meteoric rise? That is the question that Ashcroft seeks to answer. Ashcroft—the businessman and philanthropist, and former deputy Conservative chair—has written a large number of books including a muckraking biography of David Cameron, entitled Call Me Dave. The David Cameron he (along with Isabel Oakeshott) wrote about in that book was not the David Cameron known to me for many years since I taught him as a student—a thoroughly decent and intelligent man, and an able politician.

I was therefore expecting the worst of Going for Broke, but I was wrong. Ashcroft has written a well-informed interim biography. If he was searching for muck, he has not found any. The trouble for the would-be muckraker is that Sunak is exactly what he seems. Disguising neither his public schooling at Winchester nor his background in the unloved profession of investment banking, Sunak’s success since has been based, Ashcroft suggests, on qualities that are readily apparent—competence and merit coupled with a winning personality. As a candidate for William Hague’s safe seat in Richmond, Yorkshire, Sunak travelled back to London with one of his competitors who said of him, “by the time we got back to King’s Cross I’d have voted for him myself.” The selection committee thought likewise. “I’m the next William Hague,” Sunak told his new constituents in the rural, overwhelmingly white, seat, “I’ve just got a better tan.” 

Sensitive and courteous to all, Sunak listens carefully to Conservative MPs, however asinine, and is skilled at teamwork. He gives the impression of being psychologically well adjusted. As a teenager, he was at a restaurant near his home with his siblings when he was, according to Ashcroft, racially abused. He has no doubt suffered from other instances of racism. But he does not talk about it, and has not allowed himself to be defined by ethnic identity. His dignity and composure bear comparison with that of Barack Obama. Nor does he ever come across as angry or depressed, irritable or ill-tempered. In short he is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, without a single redeeming vice.

His qualities owe much to his stable home background and loving parents who came to Britain from East Africa. His father is a doctor from an upper-class Punjabi family, his mother a pharmacist. He had the best education money can buy, made head boy at both prep school and Winchester; at Oxford he gained a first in PPE. Like David Cameron, he did not become involved in student politics. But Sunak did become President of the Oxford University Investment Society, a sign of his intention to get seriously rich. That he has certainly done. Following an MBA at Stanford where he met his wife—the daughter of an Indian billionaire—he flourished in Goldman Sachs and in a hedge fund. He must be one of the richest, if not the richest, MP in the Commons. In Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, when Undershaft, the arms manufacturer, is asked his religion, he replied: “I’m a millionaire, that is my religion.” Sunak, however, is a devout Hindu and apparently teetotal. 

From the beginning, he appears to have been a Eurosceptic, but not one of the swivel-eyed John Redwood variety. He was a Brexiteer before it was fashionable, at a time when the Remainers were in charge. So his Euroscepticism looks genuine rather than a mere career move. Ashcroft does not really show what made Sunak a Eurosceptic. But the Chancellor has taken to heart one of his father’s favourite sayings—in God we trust; but everyone else needs to bring data to the table. For the most part, Sunak is not an ideological politician, but a problem-solver.

It is not clear, however, what problem Brexit was intended to solve, other than that of unrestricted EU immigration. It may have been the vision of Britain as a global free trade power—free to cut deals with everyone, away from Europe’s continent-wide protective tariff wall—that persuaded Sunak to become a Brexiteer. That of course was not what the left-behind in the northeast voted for and, even before Covid, it was difficult to believe that Britain was ready for reheated Thatcherism, lower taxes and a smaller state. Covid Britain, with its increases in public expenditure and state intervention, makes any such ambition impossible.

[su_pullquote]“Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme lost its appeal when the virus took another twist and lives were being lost”[/su_pullquote]

Is he, then, too good to be true? Can he last? These are of course questions that Ashcroft cannot answer. On becoming chancellor, Sunak found himself in a strong position. Boris Johnson, having lost Sunak’s predecessor Sajid Javid, could hardly afford to lose another. And of course it is easy to be popular when giving money away. The test comes when taxes have to be raised to pay for the goodies, and there are other difficulties ahead. Eventually, even after the scrambled extension, furlough must come to an end. That means higher unemployment. Paul Johnson, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has predicted a “mega recession—a recession to end all recessions.” Ideas that are crowd-pleasers one minute—such as Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out initiative—can fast lose appeal when the course of the virus takes another twist. In addition, Sunak’s reported hand in bringing in lockdown-sceptical scientists to Johnson’s attention in the autumn may have been a smart idea from the perspective of restarting the economy, but it looked much less sensible when—a few weeks later—lives were being lost and a new lockdown became inevitable. 

And then there is Brexit. Britain is only just beginning to confront the consequences of being outside the single market and customs union of the EU. For until January 2021, Brexit was Brexit in Name Only, since Britain remained inside the EU’s single market as well as the customs union. 

The trouble is that the most obvious way to make Brexit cohere calls not for Sunak’s state intervention and deficit finance, necessitated by Covid, but quite different policies—lower personal and corporate taxation to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in Britain, lower tariffs and subsidies and less regulation. The great danger for the government is that the Covid crisis, with its massive public intervention and restrictions on personal liberties, leads to a recrudescence of the statism that builds a habit of looking to government as a rescue agency for a sclerotic economy. “We are beginning,” complained the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, “to think like socialists.” Boris Johnson is himself a conflicted figure. An instinctive economic liberal, he is also attracted to grand projects and once described himself as a disciple of the one-nation Tory Michael Heseltine—but a Brexity Hezza, a phrase to horrify the Europhile former deputy prime minister.  

The ideological conflict between the heirs of Margaret Thatcher and of Michael Heseltine, between the market economy and interventionism, could convulse the Conservative Party just as it did during the premierships of Edward Heath and Thatcher herself. If that were to happen, Sunak’s instincts would probably align him with the heirs of Thatcher rather than Heseltine.

Westminster gossip—admittedly usually unreliable—declares that he is in pole position to take over when Boris Johnson goes. But, although No 10 and No 11 Downing Street are next door to each other, politically the distance between them is vast. Reginald Maudling, Anthony Barber and Nigel Lawson bear witness to the fact that the chancellorship ruins more politicians than it helps. Gordon Brown used to say that there were just two kinds of chancellors—those who failed, and those who got out in time. Back in September, Ipsos MORI found Sunak enjoying the highest rating for any chancellor since those of Denis Healey in April 1978. But Healey did not get out in time and in consequence failed to achieve the leadership of his party, let alone the premiership. Two post-war chancellors who succeeded to the premiership—Harold Macmillan and John Major—got out before they could do much damage, Callaghan got to No 10 despite failure at the Exchequer, but he had spells as both foreign and home secretary in between, and recouped his position by buttering up the trade unions. Gordon Brown is the only successful post-war chancellor to have become prime minister. Will Rishi Sunak be the second?

Those who seek to predict the future will need to have Going for Broke by their side. It is of course only a first draft of history, and an account from within the Tory tribe, but it is clearly written, lively and perceptive, and contains much insight on the complex world of Tory politics. It is the first biography of the Chancellor, but as Ashcroft rightly suggests, “I somehow doubt it will be the last.” 

Going for Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak by Michael Ashcroft (Biteback, £20)