Could Rishi Sunak be too super-rich to realise his British PM ambition?

Danger for British chancellor is that Conservatives will fear a backlash down the line

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been criticised as out-of-touch after the petrol station photo call. HM Treasury
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Rishi Sunak can be forgiven for wondering what on earth has hit him.

It’s true that in politics you can’t please all the people all the time, but the chancellor’s current experience takes some beating.

Conscious that he is extremely wealthy, via his wife, Akshata, daughter of Infosys founder and billionaire, N R Narayana Murthy, the chancellor decides not to be photographed filling one of his four cars, a top-of-the-line Range Rover, Lexus, BMW and Golf.

Instead, to make a point that he is trimming fuel duty to soften the blow of rising prices, he borrows a Kia belonging to a worker at the garage. Then when he goes to pay for £30 of petrol, he wrongly presents his contactless card to the bar code scanner.

The media, opposition and members of his own party go to town, accusing him of deliberately trying to disguise his fortune by using a cheap car, then showing how out of touch he is by not knowing how the payment system works. Later, he is asked: how much is a loaf of bread? He replies he paid £1.20 for a seeded Hovis. Aha, says his critics, he is fibbing, that variety is £1.75 at Tesco.

We should be applauding success

This is pathetic. In many countries in the world, Mr Sunak’s riches would be a matter for celebration. His father-in-law is self-made, he built his IT services empire from scratch. Good on him, and the fact that Murthy, the sixth richest man in India worth an estimated £3.1bn, gives some to Akshata, so what?

Mr Sunak’s own background is that his immigrant father was a GP and mother a pharmacist. He went to smart and expensive Winchester College (he was head boy and edited the school magazine), but on an academic scholarship and from there to Oxford University. To make ends meet, during the holidays, he worked as a waiter in a curry house.

After Oxford, he went to Stanford, on a Fulbright scholarship, to study for an MBA, which is when he met Akshata. Then he joined Goldman Sachs and subsequently moved into hedge fund management, earning himself considerable sums.

We should be applauding success like theirs, not ridiculing it. After all, for a nation, for a ruling political party, that promotes the virtues of hard work and aspiration, the Mr Sunak story has it all. Neither is he the first chancellor to hail from serious money.

This, though, is embittered, divided Britain, where tall poppies are there to be cut down, in which anyone with wealth is a source of envy. So, a Tory MP says to me that Mr Sunak will never be prime minister, “because he is too rich.”

Do I know how big Mr Sunak’s home is, in his rural North Yorkshire constituency? Before I can answer, I am informed it’s “a palace”. Then I am told about Mr Sunak’s other residences, in London and Santa Monica. Just look at his trainers, £335. He’s “greedy” apparently — this from an MP for a party that thinks nothing of taking donations from oligarchs and assorted foreign billionaires.

To make matters worse, Infosys is continuing to operate in Russia, despite the invasion of Ukraine. Akshata’s stake is all of 0.91 per cent. “Blood money!” scream the Sunaks’ detractors.

Tory MPs attack

Mr Sunak’s problem is that he is chancellor at a time when we’re feeling our way out of the biggest health crisis for a century. Inflation is climbing, the cost of living is due to soar, the world is in the grip of enormous economic uncertainty and turmoil — to the extent that no one knows for sure how bad it will get and how soon before a semblance of normality returns, if at all, given Russia’s hold over European energy supplies.

He’s in charge of the purse strings, too, when his next-door neighbour is prone to grand gestures, someone who thrives on extravagant promises, who loves to spend today and worry about the finances tomorrow.

This is the same prime minister that Mr Sunak could succeed, so all the while they are side by side, Boris Johnson must be wondering whether his chancellor is after the top post. Anything that is not gung-ho boosterism in support of Mr Johnson is automatically interpreted as veiled criticism, as another string to Mr Sunak’s job application.

Mr Sunak wants to be close but not that close. Determining the level of distance without it spilling into outright hostility is a dangerous balancing act.

Then there are the leadership contenders. They, or rather their followers, are briefing away, having a word here, nudging there. Mr Sunak, as the super-rich chancellor — “the richest MP” as another MP took great delight in telling me — and a favourite to win is there to be shot at, by all of them.

Pilloried either way

Mr Sunak’s instinct is to pursue a policy of low taxation. Behind his desk at Number 11 is a picture of Nigel Lawson, the Thatcherite chancellor. In a speech last month, Mr Sunak said: “I firmly believe in lower taxes” .

Saying and doing can be very different. No sooner did he become chancellor than Covid hit. Mr Sunak’s approach was to spend, to achieve some degree of stability — so we had the eating out vouchers scheme, business loans and furloughing to name just a few emergency measures — which required paying for.

The pandemic also brought to the fore weaknesses that were already present but could no longer be ignored: underfunded health and social care. That, plus being part of a government that was elected on the back of “levelling up” and a pledge to put more police officers on the streets, combined to narrow his room for manoeuvre.

Rather than reduce the tax burden he finds himself having to raise it, while being mindful of the disadvantaged grappling with steeply climbing household costs. All this with a subtext of someone who may find himself presented with the chance to be leader. Oh, and did I say he is so stinkingly well off that none of the issues confronting ordinary folk really apply to him?

Pilloried if he does, pilloried if he doesn’t. Mr Sunak doesn’t merit sympathy — he chose to go into politics, he must have been aware of the prevailing attitude to wealth, he wanted to be Mr Johnson’s chancellor, he may hold a burning desire to be Mr Johnson’s successor. Neither though does he merit the level of opprobrium he’s receiving.

Published: March 29, 2022, 4:20 PM