Well before he became chancellor, Rishi Sunak was being spoken of as a rising star. No sooner had he entered the British Parliament than I can remember being told about this super-bright, charming successor to William Hague in the Yorkshire constituency of Richmond.
His was a seat, one of the safest in the country, that lots of would-be MPs craved. The fact that Sunak landed it spoke volumes. A man born to parents of Indian origin winning the selection contest in a heavily rural area not known for its ethnic diversity also said much about him and his appeal.
Perhaps, to be critical of his party, his rapid ascent was indicative of a political organisation devoid of genuine talent. Perhaps.
There again, few are possessed of such a stellar CV. The son of immigrants — his father a doctor, his mother a pharmacist; head boy at one of England’s grandest schools, Winchester College; PPE at Oxford; MBA from Stanford where he was a Fulbright scholar; graduate trainee, then analyst at Goldman Sachs; marriage to the daughter of an Indian billionaire; partner in a hedge fund. Then MP, junior minister, into Cabinet as chief secretary to the Treasury, chancellor and now prime minister.
And as he likes to remind people, while a student, he was a waiter in a Southampton curry house during the summer holidays.
He is only 42.
He works hard, is attentive to detail, is unafraid to address the tough questions head-on. In approach, he is more David Cameron than Boris Johnson — the latter always accused the former of being a “swat”. He will not be making unprepared speeches to the likes of the CBI as Johnson did. He will do his homework.
That said, there are contradictions. Those who have worked with him say that Sunak likes to make up his own mind but then he can be difficult to dislodge. He’s said to have a habit, too, of taking against people, of cutting across those who do not agree with his viewpoint. Several of his former Cabinet colleagues took against him for this reason.
Despite his reputation for caution, his political career almost came spectacularly unstuck because his wife, Akshata, enjoys the tax advantages of being a non-dom and, until recently, he possessed a US green card. These were extraordinary lapses for someone who professed to be on the side of ordinary working people.
Going with his near-stately home in his constituency, a house in Santa Monica, California, and a taste for designer clothes and accessories, the impression gained was of a slick operator who, at the drop of a hat, could quit UK politics and happily lead the mega-rich Silicon Valley lifestyle.
To be fair, this revelation would have finished many others. But here he is today as Britain’s new prime minister.
While he was being spoken of approvingly at Westminster, Sunak shot into the public consciousness as the person who masterminded the early financial response to Covid, who as chancellor, came up with a voucher programme to encourage people to prop up the ailing hospitality industry — “Eat out to help out” — and furlough payments to discourage wholesale redundancies.
They were inspired, although critics question whether the mass dining out initiative fostered the spread of the virus. The furlough rescue was also open to widespread fraud and abuse.
After that, Sunak did not have such a “good war”. His tendency to play by the book, to come across as nerdy and interested mainly in the numbers, made him seem apart — a dangerous place to be when many people were grappling with the soaring cost of living and rising energy bills.
This is the test for Sunak: to somehow steer Britain through a monumental crisis, making tough decisions, while at the same time enhancing his own popularity, ready for a general election in 2024. That’s if the ballot does not come sooner.
The argument resonates that unlike Johnson, he does not carry a mandate from the electorate — he was chosen by Tory MPs, not the public. And when he did go before a wider, albeit narrow pool of Tory party members, he lost to Liz Truss. He will come under pressure from the opposition to go to the country sooner rather than later.
His game plan is to get the economy in better shape before the poll is called, to have brought inflation down and to see living standards improving. In that time, he must restore Britain’s reputation for economic stability and political certainty.
National and international business and investor confidence needs urgently rebuilding. And he must do this against a backdrop of a continuing war in Ukraine, rising interest rates and mortgage costs, market volatility and the spiking price of fuel and everyday necessities.
Sunak must achieve better relations with the European Union to smooth the flow of goods and vital workers — not easy for an avowed Brexiteer. Britain desperately requires the conclusion of more meaningful trade deals than those struck by Truss, especially one, if possible, with the US — which can’t happen until the impasse with the EU over Northern Ireland is resolved.
His “green” credentials are strong and he is likely to move quickly to reassert belief in an eco-friendly economy and Britain’s place as a leader in renewables — a stance discarded by Truss.
The scale of the problems facing him is immense. In tackling them he must demonstrate that he really cares about how ordinary people lead their lives and what matters to them — not easy if you and your wife feature in The Sunday Times Rich List. He does so in the knowledge that his is a nation that cannot afford more mistakes.
Sunak’s credentials are doubtlessly well deserved but the true test is just beginning. And what a test.