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Sunak the Tory ‘golden boy’ who struggled to meet his pledges

Rishi Sunak (James Manning/PA)
Rishi Sunak (James Manning/PA)

The one-time Tory golden boy, Rishi Sunak enjoyed an astonishingly rapid ascent – but having scaled the peak of British politics he has struggled to win over his party or the country at large.

As chancellor during the Covid-19 pandemic, he was the most popular politician in the UK credited with saving millions of jobs through an unprecedented furlough scheme.

Slick and image-conscious from the start – in part a legacy of time spent in the US – his well-tailored suits, fashionable accessories and love of expensive gadgetry have proved a regular source of media fascination.

When he entered No 10 – at the second attempt – he brought some welcome stability after the chaos of Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership.

The respite was however brief as he grappled with a toxic inheritance of squeezed living standards, over-stretched public services and a Conservative Party still at war with itself in the aftermath of Brexit.

Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street for Prime Minister’s Questions
Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street for Prime Minister’s Questions (Aaron Chown/PA)

For some in the party, his role in the downfall of Boris Johnson was unforgivable while the persistently high levels of taxation have led to taunts from the likes of Nigel Farage that he was not really a Conservative at all.

As Britain’s first prime minister of South Asian heritage, Mr Sunak’s rise appeared both as a testament to the classic immigrant virtues of hard work and industry as well as evidence of the way the Tories and the wider country had changed.

A multimillionaire former hedge fund manager with an MBA from Stanford University in California and married to the daughter of India’s sixth richest man, he has however found it hard to shed the perception he is remote from the concerns of ordinary Britons.

As a self-professed low-tax, small-state Tory, he has been described as both a non-ideological pragmatist and the most right-wing premier since Margaret Thatcher.

By nature a technocrat, from his background in business he brought an analytical, problem-solving approach to the challenges facing government.

However he found issues such as the small boats crossing the Channel and swollen NHS waiting lists stubbornly resistant in the face of such methods and, for all his intellect and application, he has at times seemed short on political savvy.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak follows Boris Johnson out of No 10
Chancellor Rishi Sunak follows Boris Johnson out of No 10 (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Born in Southampton in 1980, the eldest of three children, to parents of Punjabi descent, Mr Sunak’s father was a GP and his mother ran a pharmacy.

Growing up in the leafy suburbs, he has described how they borrowed money and took on extra jobs to ensure the children all had the best education possible, sending him to the exclusive, fee-paying Winchester College where he excelled, becoming head boy.

His mother in particular was determined they should “fit in” without any trace of a foreign accent.

Mr Sunak has spoken little about any racism they encountered although he has described the shock of one incident when he was abused in a restaurant with his brother and sister.

A hard-working, somewhat geeky child, he grew up obsessed with Star Wars and cricket, while at weekends and in school holidays he would help his mother with the pharmacy’s accounts.

What he later called an “addiction” to Coca Cola – particularly the Mexican brand which uses pure cane sugar – left him with a mouthful of fillings.

While he never lost his taste for all things sugary, these days he tries to offset the effects with a weekly 36-hour fast.

From Winchester, Mr Sunak won a place at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics – a traditional route to a career in Tory politics.

At university, however, he took little interest in student politics, instead becoming president of an investment club hosting talks by bankers. On graduating – with a first – he took a job at the investment bank, Goldman Sachs.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils his furlough scheme at a No 10 news briefing
Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils his furlough scheme at a No 10 news briefing (Julian Simmonds/Daily Telegraph/PA)

That was followed by a Fulbright scholarship to Stanford where he met he wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of Infosys founder, NR Narayana Murthy. The couple went on to have two daughters.

It was only in his 30s, after a successful spell as a hedge fund manager had made him independently wealthy – he is reckoned to be one of the richest MPs at Westminster – that he turned his attention to politics.

In 2014, he was selected as the Tory candidate for the ultra safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire – then held by William (now Lord) Hague who was to become something of a mentor – and was duly elected in the general election the following year.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum he supported Leave, to the reported dismay of David Cameron who saw him as one of the Conservatives’ brightest prospects.

Typically he reached his decision after weighing up the potential costs and benefits, concluding it was time for a reset, rather than basing it on more traditional political arguments over sovereignty.

When Theresa May was forced to stand down in the chaotic aftermath, Mr Sunak, along with fellow junior ministers Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick, was among the first to urge Mr Johnson to run for the Tory leadership, calling on him to save the party.

After Mr Johnson entered No 10 in July 2019, there was swift reward for his support with a dramatic promotion to the Cabinet as Treasury Chief Secretary.

An even bigger step up followed when Chancellor Sajid Javid quit 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.

But while he won plaudits for pumping in billions to prop up the economy during Covid, there was a price to pay afterwards as he sought to rebuild the public finances, raising taxes to a post-war high to the dismay of many Tories.

Behind the scenes some health officials were also unhappy with his Eat Out To Help Out scheme – designed to support the struggling hospitality sector – privately dubbing him “Dr Death” after it was blamed for a rise in infections.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss clash during the Tory leadership debates
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss clash during the Tory leadership debates (Jonathan Hordle/ITV/PA)

Openly ambitious, his leadership hopes received a significant jolt when it emerged he had retained a US “green card” – entitling him to permanent residence in the States – while his wife had “non dom” status for tax purposes, reportedly saving her millions.

The impression created was of a cosmopolitan rootlessness, a couple who were part of a gilded global financial elite with somewhat ephemeral ties to the UK – leading some at Westminster seriously to question whether he could ever hope to lead the country.

Politics was however moving rapidly, with Mr Johnson increasingly bogged down in the “partygate” scandal over drunken Downing Street gatherings in breach of Covid lockdown regulations.

When a further scandal erupted over the appointment of the government deputy chief whip, Mr Sunak’s frustration with Mr Johnson’s chaotic style of government spilled over and he followed Mr Javid (reinstated to Cabinet as Health Secretary) in resigning.

Over the following 48 hours, their departures, announced in quick succession, triggered a tidal wave of ministerial resignations leaving Mr Johnson with no choice but to announce his own decision to go.

For Johnson loyalists it was an act of unforgivable treachery by his one-time protege – Jacob Rees-Mogg denounced Mr Sunak as the “much-lamented socialist chancellor” saying he would never serve in his cabinet if he became prime minister.

In the eyes of many Tory MPs, however, he was the best-qualified candidate for the top job and in the ensuing leadership contest he topped all five rounds of voting by MPs to go forward into a final ballot of party members along with Ms Truss, the Foreign Secretary.

Rishi Sunak prepares to enter No 10 for the first time as prime minister
Rishi Sunak enters No 10 for the first time as Prime Minister (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Among the grassroots, where support for Mr Johnson remained strong, it was a different story and he was swept aside by his rival who managed to present herself as the true champion of Brexit, despite having campaigned for Remain in the referendum.

It represented an abrupt halt in his seemingly seamless ascent. However Mr Sunak was not to be denied for long.

When Ms Truss had to go in the wake of a calamitous budget he emerged as the only candidate to replace her after Mr Johnson – attempting an unlikely comeback – and Penny Mordaunt both pulled out.

At the age of just 42 – and after only seven years in Parliament – he entered No 10 as the youngest Prime Minister in more than a century.

In office his approach was exemplified in his “five pledges” – presented rather in the manner of a company CEO setting out a business plan – covering the economy, the NHS and illegal migration.

While his practice of identifying a problem and then applying himself methodically to finding a solution may have served him well in business, delivering in government proved altogether trickier as outside factors crowded in.

Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murty
Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murty (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A promise to cut NHS waiting lists was hit by the long-running doctors pay dispute, he has seen the economy slip back into recession while he has failed to stop the small boat crossings – a source of particular angst at Westminster.

Mr Sunak has remained wedded to the controversial policy of removing asylum seekers to Rwanda as the best deterrent – despite reports he considered abandoning it during the leadership contest and even though there has yet to be a single deportation flight.

That failure to deliver, coupled with the Tories’ dire ratings in the opinion polls, has fuelled discontent particularly on the right with some MPs and former advisers plotting almost semi-publicly to replace him.

While most would appear to believe that another change of leader ahead of the general election is simply untenable, it underlines the way that a section of the party at least has been unable to embrace him as one of their own.

Perhaps surprisingly, he has enjoyed his greatest success on Europe – the Achilles heel of so many of his predecessors.

A marked improvement in relations after the rancour of the Johnson years saw agreement on the so-called “Windsor framework” easing post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland – the thorniest outstanding issue with Brussels.

Further negotiation saw the DUP – who had walked out of Stormont in protest – return to powersharing, seen by Mr Sunak’s allies as vindication of his patient approach.

For all his focus on presentation, there have been some odd missteps – accepting a bet from Piers Morgan on being able to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda before the election and what some saw as an ill-judged jibe at Labour’s trans policy on the day the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey was visiting Parliament.

A TV interview with tech billionaire Elon Musk was seen as a thinly disguised pitch for a well-paid Silicon Valley job should he be rejected by the voters.

For now, his focus remains on the UK with his supporters insistent that victory in the election is still possible. Whether his methodical approach can deliver the biggest electoral turnaround since John Major led the Tories to victory in 1992 remains to be seen.