Man who predicted chaos: what many Tory MPs think of UK leadership favourite Rishi Sunak

It's time for Tories to decide if time has come for one-time golden boy to shine as leader

Former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. Reuters
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Many Conservatives believe former chancellor Rishi Sunak is the clear choice to steer Britain’s economy back towards stability, having largely predicted the turmoil unleashed by Liz Truss’s tax-cutting agenda.

To some other MPs, Mr Sunak is still the traitor who brought down Boris Johnson, raising the question of whether he can unite a fractious Conservative Party.

Once the golden boy of the Tory party, Mr Sunak clearly believes he has a chance of convincing them he can, taking another tilt at 10 Downing Street just over six weeks after losing out last time.

He was defeated in the last Tory leadership race as the party membership picked rival Ms Truss, winning 60,399 votes to her 81,326.

In that contest, Mr Sunak positioned himself as the candidate prepared to tell hard truths about the state of the public finances rather than “comforting fairy tales”.

He remained resolute in the view that his rival’s promises of unfunded tax cuts at a time of worsening inflation were irresponsible, dangerous and “un-Conservative”, predicting that they would lead to surging mortgage rates.

After Ms Truss took office, her disastrous mini-budget brought turbulence in the financial markets and forced the Bank of England to intervene, proving Mr Sunak right.

He kept a low profile as the chaos continued, staying away from the annual Tory party conference, which was overshadowed by the retreat on a flagship policy to scrap the 45 per cent rate of income tax.

Rishi Sunak through the years - in pictures

Accusations in the last leadership race that he represented “Treasury orthodoxy” and a “gloomster” mentality could speak in Mr Sunak's favour this time, as many will be reassured by his undoubted experience in handling the economy and his practical approach.

He secured a string of endorsements from MPs before declaring he would run, with backers highlighting his “calm competence” and portraying him as a “serious person for serious times”.

At the start of the pandemic, he was the most popular politician in the country as he introduced an unprecedented furlough scheme that saved millions of jobs as the economy ground to a halt.

His ambitions had been scarcely concealed since the day he entered 11 Downing Street, with personalised branding on carefully curated social media content to boost his public profile, along with a concerted campaign to woo MPs.

Mr Sunak's meteoric rise under Mr Johnson quickly made him the Cabinet minister tipped to be the most likely successor.

Everything you need to know about Rishi Sunak — video

He was born in 1980 in Southampton, the son of parents of Punjabi descent. Mr Sunak’s father was a doctor and his mother ran a pharmacy, where he helped her with the books.

After private schooling at Winchester College, where he was head boy, and a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, he took an MBA at Stanford University in California where he met his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of India’s sixth richest man.

A successful business career, with spells at Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager, meant by the time he decided to enter politics in his early 30s Mr Sunak was already independently wealthy.

In 2014 he was selected as the Tory candidate for the ultra-safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire and was elected in the general election the following year.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum Mr Sunak supported the “Leave” campaign, to the reported dismay of David Cameron who saw him as one of the Conservatives’ brightest prospects among the new intake.

Given his first government post as a junior local government minister by Mr Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, he was an early backer of Mr Johnson for leader when she was forced out amid the fallout over Brexit.

When Mr Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, there was swift reward with a dramatic promotion to the Cabinet as Treasury chief secretary.

An even bigger step up followed in February 2020 when Sajid Javid quit as chancellor after rejecting a demand to sack all his advisers, and Mr Sunak was put in charge of the nation’s finances at the age of just 39.

The increasingly rapid spread of Covid-19 meant his mettle was swiftly tested. Within a two weeks of his first Budget he was effectively forced to rip up his financial plans as the country went into lockdown.

Mr Sunak, who saw himself as a traditional small-state, low-tax Conservative, began pumping out hundreds of billions in government cash as the economy was put on life support.

But as the country emerged from the pandemic, some of the gloss began to wear off amid growing tension with his neighbour in No 10 and anger among Tory MPs over rising taxes as he sought to rebuild public finances.

To add to his woes, Mr Sunak was caught up in the “partygate” scandal, receiving a fine along with Mr Johnson for attending a gathering to mark the prime minister’s 56th birthday, even though he claimed to have gone into No 10 only to attend a meeting.

There were more questions when it emerged his wife had “non-domiciled” status for tax purposes, an arrangement that reportedly saved her millions, while he had kept a US green card, entitling him to permanent residence in the US.

For a man known for his fondness for expensive gadgets and fashionable accessories, and who still has an apartment in Santa Monica, it all looked dangerously out of touch at a time when soaring prices were putting a financial squeeze on millions across the country.

Mr Sunak's frustrations with Mr Johnson’s chaotic style of government, various scandals and a deepening rift over policy, finally spilt over and he resigned, prompting the rush for the door by other ministers that forced the prime minister to resign.

Mr Sunak has been unrepentant over his decision to quit, even as he admitted it was a decision that may have damaged his standing among grassroots supporters who had picked Mr Johnson as prime minister only a few years earlier.

It remains to be seen whether his colleagues, and the party faithful, are ready to forgive him for the slight, and whether the time has come for this one-time golden boy to shine.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman said Mr Sunak is the right person for the job.

Writing in The Telegraph, she said the Conservative Party “is divided and heading towards a wipeout”.

“Things need to change. We, as a party, need to change. We need to provide leadership, stability and confidence to the British people,” she wrote.

“We cannot indulge in parochial or nativist fantasies. Yes, I want a leader of our party and our country to inspire hope for a better future and raise our spirits. And I need a leader who will put our house in order and apply a steady, careful hand on the tiller. That person, for me, is Rishi Sunak.”

MP Kemi Badenoch said Mr Sunak is a “unifying figure” who will do what is right for the UK.

Nadhim Zahawi, who had been backing Mr Johnson but switched to Mr Sunak following his withdrawal, said the former chancellor is “immensely talented”.

“Rishi is immensely talented, will command a strong majority in the parliamentary Conservative Party, and will have my full support and loyalty,” he tweeted on Monday.

Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, has declared his support for Mr Sunak, saying he will “rebuild the extraordinary potential” of the country's economy.

“With Rishi Sunak, we have someone who, in our best traditions, will turn the page on what went wrong, take decisions in the national interest and rebuild the extraordinary potential of our economy,” he wrote in The Telegraph.

Updated: October 24, 2022, 9:25 AM
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