Rishi Sunak: the prime minister in waiting? 

Just two years ago, few people outside the Westminster bubble had heard of Rishi Sunak.

But the current chancellor’s status has rocketed amid widespread approval of his handling of the economic fallout of Covid-19. Sunak has been gaining fans since taking over from his mentor Sajid Javid in the Treasury in February 2020 and is currently “the most popular politician in the country ”, he said The New Statesman. And Sunak is also “the only prominent Tory who polls well with the public”.

That may be down in part to his apparent efforts to distance himself from Boris Johnson during the ongoing “Partygate” scandal. The chancellor’s “mealy-mouthed support” for the prime minister since the first row hit Downing Street late last year has “revealed his own ambitions for the top job”, according to Tim Ross in the same magazine.

The Guardian‘s political editor Heather Stewart argued that “the clearest indication yet” of Sunak having his “eye on the prize” is the chancellor’s “blunt” response after his boss dredged up an old claim about Labor leader Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have said it,” the chancellor told reporters last week, amid calls for Johnson to apologize for falsely smearing Starmer.

But in an interview on the same day with the BBC‘s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, the chancellor insisted he had no plans for a leadership bid, saying: “No, that’s not what I’m focused on.”

Who is Rishi Sunak?

The first Hindu to lead the Treasury, Sunak is a first-generation immigrant born in Southampton to Yashvir and Usha Sunak. Kenya-born Yashvir was a GP, while Usha, originally from Tanzania, ran a local pharmacy.

The now chancellor attended Winchester College boarding school, where he was head boy, before reading politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.

After a career as an investment banker, Sunak entered politics in 2015, when he took over from former Tory leader William Hague as the MP for Richmond in Yorkshire.

Sunak faced a significant challenge in winning over the constituency. Local farmers who spoke to Tatler” Ben Judah shortly before the election aired their thoughts on their new Conservative candidate with “that infamous turn of phrase, ” I’m not racist, but… ‘”.

Such comments did not deter Sunak, although he told Sky News last year that experiencing racist abuse “stings in a way that very few other things have”.

Billionaire in-laws

Sunak married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of one of India’s richest men, in a two-day ceremony in 2009. The wedding was held in Bangalore and attended by Indian celebrities and politicians.

The couple met while studying at Stanford University, where Sunak was a Fulbright scholar. According to Tatler’s Judah, Sunak’s “glamorous” spouse has an estimated personal fortune of up to £ 300m, and the couple have a £ 10m property portfolio that includes homes in North Yorkshire’s Richmond, London’s Kensington and California.

Zac Goodwin / PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Sunak had the support of Murthy’s family when he first entered politics, back in 2015. His billionaire father-in-law, Narayana Murthy, was “so enthusiastic about Sunak’s parliamentary career that he’d flown in, and had even been leafleting on his behalf, wearing a Rishi sweatshirt ”, Judah wrote.

Steering the country through the pandemic

Until July 2019, Sunak was a junior minister in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. But after a stint as chief secretary to the Treasury, during which he was widely praised, Sunak was in the perfect position to take over when Javid quit in February 2020.

The subsequent coronavirus outbreak in the UK left Sunak facing the challenge of steering the country through the economic consequences of the pandemic.

In March 2020, he announced a £ 350bn package of loans and grants to help Britain cope with the impact of lockdown on the economy. Days later, Sunak introduced the furlough scheme through which the government paid millions of workers’ wages.

He also oversaw the controversial Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which provided a government-backed discount in restaurants, cafes and pubs. The scheme has since been criticized for potentially having caused a rise in Covid cases and costing the taxpayer “an eyewatering £ 849m after soaring way over budget”, said the Daily Mail.

Sunak faced further criticism last year for axing the £ 20-a-week increase to Universal Credit that was part of the government emergency Covid support package. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that the cut – which slashed the incomes of six million people – would push more than 200,000 people into poverty.

“Just weeks before the cut was confirmed in July, the chancellor requested planning permission to build a private swimming pool, gym and tennis court at the Grade II-listed Yorkshire manor that Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, purchased for £ 1.5m in 2015, ” openDemocracy” Adam Bychawski reported.

Talk in the Tory party

The chancellor has long been viewed as a front runner to succeed Johnson as PM, with many Conservative MPs applauding his “bold” approach in tackling the coronavirus crisis.

An unnamed senior Tory backbencher told the Reaction news site in 2020 that Sunak was “very assiduous about keeping up with MPs. He sends texts around and does the rounds. You’d assume all politicians do that, but it’s actually rare. You have to be very ambitious. ”

Rishi Sunak

Ray Tang / Xinhua / Alamy Live News

Sunak’s stint in the City working for hedge funds and billionaires could prove to be a stumbling block, however. “I’m always suspicious of bankers who become politicians,” said another Tory insider.

After Sunak’s mini Budget announcement in July 2020, “all the talk” in the Commons chamber “was about whether they had just been watching the next prime minister”, the Financial Times‘political editor George Parker reported at the time.

But Sunak’s popularity isn’t just down to cash and charm. Behind the policy and personality is a team shaping “Brand Rishi” with the help of television designers, marketing gurus and strategists, said The Times.

Tim Ross in The New Stateman described the chancellor as “the minister with the slickest social media operation in the cabinet, who took to autographing his own tweets during the height [of] the pandemic ”.

Partygate scandal

Amid growing public anger over lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street, Sunak told the BBC’s Kuenssberg that “it’s now the job of all of us in government, all politicians, to restore people’s trust”.

But as The New Stateman‘s Stephen Bush pointed out, the row over parties at No. 10 has also raised “awkward questions” for Sunak, who “literally lived next door”.

“Can any departmental minister say for sure that no one in their employ – no special adviser, no civil service official – did not attend one of these parties? Or that they had a party of their own? ” asked Bush.

The chancellor is also reported to have attended a surprise birthday party for the PM in No. 10’s Cabinet Room in June 2020, during the first national lockdown. Sunak shrugged off the claim when quizzed by the BBC’s Kuenssberg, saying that he had been in that room “100, 200, God knows how many times”.

“You’re asking me about something that happened almost two years ago,” he added.

According to The Mirror, police have a photograph showing Sunak with a soft drink standing beside “Johnson holding a can of a beer” at the birthday bash. The “bombshell image” is thought to be “among 300 pictures submitted to the Metropolitan Police as evidence of rule-busting gatherings by senior civil servant Sue Gray”, the paper reported.

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