I am not especially tall but as Rishi Sunak shakes my hand he has to peer up at me. Saul Bellow once wrote of a particular quality of modern celebrity: ‘TV brightness’. Sunak has it, though it is perhaps a rather dubious thing to possess. He is one of those politicians, immaculately turned out, whose slick appearance calls into question his sincerity. In this he is distinct from those politicians whom the public really takes to their heart: one thinks of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke with his jazz and Hush Puppies, and of course, Sunak’s predecessor bar one, Boris Johnson.
Every Prime Minister has a context in which their premiership plays out – and this inevitably has to do with their immediate predecessor.
In Sunak’s case, because of the short duration of the Truss administration, it is truer to say that Sunak’s administration faces a sort of double context: he is always being considered in relation to Liz Truss, and in relation to Boris Johnson. With regard to Truss, he comes out well – the image is of the sure hand at the tiller. Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan tells us: “Theory and practice are very different. Rishi Sunak understands that and it’s one of the things which makes him a fantastic prime minister. He has the most extraordinary talent; he’s very detailed and strategic and kind. I look at him and think that he’s got that stardust, and a lot of space to grow: I think he will be a world statesman.” The first sentence feels partly aimed at Truss, whose short-lived premiership unravelled when it transpired that unfettered ideology doesn’t necessarily meld with the pragmatic decision-makers who govern markets.
As one might expect from a serving Cabinet minister, Keegan’s is a reasonably sunny assessment of Sunak and his predicament – especially given that he must call a General Election next year and is behind in the polls. Even so, these positive sentiments are echoed here and there in the Conservative Party. One seasoned political observer who recently had breakfast with Sunak’s wife Akshata Murthy says that the single most revealing fact about Sunak is that once he had achieved financial success at Goldman Sachs he paid his parents back for his education (Sunak famously attended the expensive Winchester College).
The impression is usually of someone kind and admirable – a hard man to dislike. But in the current febrile environment, there are naysayers – as there always are. In respect of the contrast drawn between Sunak and his former boss Boris Johnson, things become a little more complicated. Considered alongside Johnson, Sunak seems organised, on top of his brief – the man with the tidy desk. But for others, he will seem bland and technocratic – the former Goldman Sachs alumnus and hedge fund relationship manager raised too high, to a position where he cannot inspire.
Some insiders note that he can seem detached in meetings, like he wishes to get away. Johnson, it is said, always enjoyed human interaction, and was always genuinely interested in the family situations of staff. Others note that Sunak is simply busy, keen to get on with the job.
He gives me a brief, transactional nod then marches on to the bestowal of other transactional nods. One of his predecessors as Prime Minister David Lloyd George is sometimes considered the archetypal “young man in a hurry”. Sunak’s busy shuffle off into the next encounter suggests the rush you have to be in to stand a chance of making it to Downing Street, but it also seems like someone who must brush off entanglements. The obverse of being in a hurry is not wishing others to hold you up.
I first met Sunak at the Two Cities lunch when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. This occasion is held annually at a central London hotel – usually the Intercontinental. These affairs are hush-hush beforehand both for security reasons and to ward off journalistic interest. They are usually attended by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of the day, and can therefore be vivid exhibitions of that particular politician’s predicament.
In 2019, I recall the then Prime Minister Theresa May, standing at the lectern a few metres away from me, her hands visibly shaking: the office which she would depart that week had begun to overwhelm her. I remember wondering if David Cameron had ever felt nervous speaking before the party faithful. She sat down to a respectful silence, her fate all but sealed.
After the pandemic, it was Boris Johnson’s turn to swagger in an hour late, and then find himself the object of cult-like attention, trying to eat his lunch while being encircled by a phalanx of business people photographing and videoing him. Eventually, a Two Cities official panicked over the speaker system: “Let the Prime Minister eat his lunch!”.
At the time one realised that Boris had so charmed a segment of the Conservative Party that it had been futile to keep the paparazzi out: we’re all paparazzi now.
Sunak’s demeanour when I first met him, and again in 2023, is more methodical – lacking the nerviness of May, but also the bombastic charisma of Johnson. He moves around the room shaking hands, meticulous in the discharging of prime ministerial duties. Here, you think, is the tidy desk prime minister in action, slick and at ease in his own competence – and since none of this is particularly exciting, he also gets to eat his lunch more or less undisturbed. This year, too, the lunch takes place just before the parliamentary summer recess and so the hall is bereft of Cabinet ministers, giving Sunak a somewhat lonely look, although of course one wouldn’t want to overdo the symbolism of an impression arising out of a scheduling issue.
Former MP and minister Brooks Newmark once recalled to me what it was like to campaign in the North alongside Johnson: “They come out of their houses to greet him; he doesn’t need to knock on doors”. While it is remarkable to consider how swiftly the intense energy which surrounded Johnson has now disappeared into the rearview mirror after Partygate, there remains the suspicion – buttressed by iffy opinion polls – that Sunak could do with a bit of that stardust.
We must add to this the question of legitimacy which usually attaches itself to any prime minister who hasn’t fought a general election: think Gordon Brown and Theresa May. In Sunak’s case, there is the spectre of a well-financed pro-Boris wing which sometimes seems to be willing Sunak to fail. In particular, the legendary businessman Lord Cruddas has come out as saying the leadership vote for Truss’s replacement should all along have been put to the membership – a decision which would have led, as night follows day, to a second Johnson administration, albeit one Boris would have found prohibitively difficult to staff.
Cruddas tells me: “We have to look at the situation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that Boris was elected by 43 per cent of the popular vote in the country – an 80-seat majority – on a mandate of Getting Brexit Done. Effectively what happened is that Boris was removed from office by a small group of MPs who decided that he had to go. But Boris got the same fine as Rishi and the membership didn’t vote for Rishi. But this isn’t anti-Rishi.”
And yet it can’t really avoid being a bit anti-Rishi, since no two people can be prime minister at the same time and Cruddas would obviously prefer Boris. He continues: “At the end of the day, it’s bad for democracy – we need to let the country decide who the Prime Minister is. It’s all about democracy and it’s appalling what’s happened to Boris.”
Wondering what Sunak might have to fear if Boris were to attempt a comeback at some point once the dust has settled, I ask Cruddas if he’s seen Boris recently? “I think he’s in good spirits. He’s a successful guy. He can work, he’s making money and he doesn’t need politics. He feels an obligation to the electorate. He was elected by 14 million people and he doesn’t want to let them down and he feels that opportunity has been taken away from him. Ultimately, Boris has been removed over really mundane stuff.”
But in truth, as 2023 has limped along, these emotions now hang over Sunak less and less – especially after a series of policy achievements, including the Windsor Framework, the Illegal Boats Bill, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the incremental slowing down of inflation, and the eventual settling of some of the strikes.
Watching Sunak mingle with the business community, one senses his easefulness in that environment. This is the Sunak who has married wealth (his father-in-law is N. R. Narayana Murthy,
the billionaire founder of Infosys) and who has an instinctive understanding of the economy due to his career in financial services, and of course in government both as Chief Secretary to the Treasury when Sajid Javid was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then as Javid’s successor in that role.
This is also the same man who can appear too technocratic for popular taste, and who could, for instance, ask somebody he was serving at a homeless kitchen whether he was in business (‘No, I’m homeless,’ came the viral reply).
Likewise, it isn’t too much of a leap to see why such a man might frame his education policy around the importance of mathematics. It was the former Chancellor Philip Hammond who became known as Spreadsheet Phil, and perhaps if that moniker hadn’t been used so recently we might be discussing Spreadsheet Rishi.
Interviewed on stage at Two Cities, Sunak began in light touch mode, recalling his early weeks as Chancellor of the Exchequer. “When I first got the job, I had to deliver a budget in about three and a half weeks – and I really thought at that moment that it would be the hardest professional thing I had ever had to do in my life. It turned out to be the easiest.”
This gains laughs in the hall – and probably down the line, this sort of anecdote will win a few votes. Politicians like to remind us how difficult the job is, since it acquires our empathy – the quality we usually most withhold from them.
Sunak continues, explaining the intractable nature of crises which seemed considerable in 2022, and now seem gigantic in 2023: “I recently got back from Washington from meetings with all the finance ministers from around the world and I discovered that we’re all facing similar challenges. Inflation is very much a global phenomenon and my colleagues are all talking about the same things.”
This sort of talk, as true as it might be, can only get a politician so far: the contemporary experience is still sufficiently national that voters tend not to think, ‘Well, at least things are just as bad in Germany”. They vote on their own lives and not on the lives of others. Besides, inflation has fallen somewhat swifter in other economies – especially in the US – than it has done here, which means this argument will run out of road if the figures don’t improve by the end of the winter.
Sunak continues, recalling the strange early days of 2020, in whose wake we still live: “We were staring into the abyss at the start of the pandemic – but we have got through that and we have done so pretty successfully. I am confident that we can embrace the challenges ahead but also deliver all the other things people expect us to do which is to invest in public services and deliver a growth agenda UK. We have got to crack on with these challenges but also not be diverted from the task at hand that people actually need us to get on with as well.”
There is, of course, a step change in expectation and difficulty when an individual moves from Chancellor to Prime Minister, but he goes on to make remarks which afford an insight as to how Rishi Sunak thinks about the issues likely to be at the front of voters’ minds when we go to the polls next year. It feels like a flier for Sunak v. Starmer in 2024. Sunak will say: “Stick with me, it could have been so much worse.” Starmer will say: “Surely, it’s time for a change and you’re a bit sick of this lot.”
In the usual scheme of things, Starmer will win. But these aren’t ordinary times – and the government is looking for a compelling story to tell. For this article, I spoke to a range of opinion formers and colleagues from those who have followed the PM’s career, Cabinet ministers past and present, party donors and those who have insight into the legislative process under the Sunak administration to ask what story Sunak will tell at the next election.
Drawing the Battle Lines
On 30th July 2023, Sunak’s X (formerly known as Twitter) account, tweeted a picture of himself sitting in – but not driving – Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover. The tweet read: “Earlier I spoke to @Telegraph about how important cars are for families to live their lives. It’s something anti-motorist Labour just don’t seem to get. And it’s why I’m reviewing anti-car schemes across the country”.
The photo op generated a bit of ridicule, but was designed to draw a deeper lesson about the similarities between Britain’s greatest post-war prime minister and the current incumbent. This isn’t an old ruse: even Gordon Brown invited Thatcher to Downing Street once he assumed office.
But it feels relevant for another reason. Having steadied the ship post-Truss, Sunak is beginning to show that he understands the need to be bolder to appeal to a middle England exhausted by Brexit, Covid and experiencing their own version of the cost of living crisis.
These people who read The Telegraph, to whom Sunak gave that interview, will probably always be able to make their mortgage payments, but are nevertheless capable of being quite annoyed when every Sainsbury’s (or perhaps Waitrose) shop costs more than they feel it should; when value is wiped off their houses; and when everywhere you turn there’s a tax to put you off investing in a better life. We can’t feel the same sympathy towards such people as we do towards those who are genuinely struggling, but the fact remains that Rishi needs their support to win.
The car tweet shows Sunak also distancing himself from Johnson’s embrace of the green lobby (Truss didn’t hang around long enough for us to find out what she thought on that issue). Sunak is intuiting that while most people accept the science on climate change, there is also a growing consensus that green policies are beginning to hurt their personal finances. As Caxton CEO Andrew Law tells me: “We’re in the early stages of an energy transition where we’re going to have to invest enormous amounts of money on green energies, as we decrease our dependence on gas and oil. This will undoubtedly put upward pressure on interest rates.” Voters are beginning to sense the pain attached to that.
But for Sunak there’s also a pragmatic business streak in play: “What we can’t have is a situation where private capital can’t invest in the transition of fuels, particularly natural gas,” he says. “Where that happens it’s not good for people, as it hits their gas prices and people’s bills. We need to recognise that but also in the long term be really committed to transitioning to renewable energy. We also have to do things like nuclear which we haven’t done for a long time in this country – all this is a change people will really welcome.”
It is unthinkable for the Conservatives to enter the General Election without some compelling sops of this nature to the middle classes. A review of anti-car legislation might win some votes, as it did in Uxbridge, thanks to the unpopular ULEZ policies of London mayor Sadiq Khan.
But really, Sunak needs to do something on tax – and unlike Liz Truss, to do something in a way which markets will stomach. This is especially the case if the Bank of England keeps interest raises roughly where they are deep into 2024.
Despite all this, Sunak faces an additional problem – that the damage was likely already done during the Johnson and Truss administrations. Haven’t most people made up their minds, however unobjectionable they might find Sunak personally to be? When I speak to Sir Terry Waite, he issues a stark condemnation of the current climate in Westminster: “In recent years we’ve had a very poor deal in our political life and if you read the latest book on former prime minister Johnson, which I’m reading not because I’m an admirer, but because I wanted the inside story…[Waite is referring to Finito advisory board member Sir Anthony Seldon’s Johnson at No. 10].” Waite trails off, plainly disgusted by the status quo. Then he continues: “The inside story is frankly dreadful. The fact of people vying for power and position, rather than saying: ‘My first obligation is wanting to serve the people of this country’. On a much broader scale, a sense of vocation has gone out of life for many people. At one time teaching and nursing were considered definite vocations.”
Why has it gone out? “It’s because we live in a society where money is the God. We can’t seek for bigger or better all the time. We need people to be content with what they have.” This feels true, and I wonder how it might apply to Sunak. On the one hand, he certainly does have money, and is more guilty than many of seeking it. On the other hand, he plainly has an admirable sense of duty. He didn’t need to go into political life, but he did. He didn’t have to submit himself to that miserable summer electioneering against Truss, but felt obliged to do so. On a day to day basis, he works hard.
Of course, there’s a policy element to the misery Waite describes too, and this now intertwines with the overall sense of fatigue. An atmosphere of rising interest rates has hurt homeowners – and this has obvious ramifications for Sunak’s electability next year. It was Churchill who in his tired second administration articulated his vision of Britain as a ‘property-owning democracy’ and to a remarkable extent – partly thanks to Sunak’s hero Margaret Thatcher – that is what we became. But there’s a corollary to this which Liz Truss would have done well to remember: don’t mess with people’s houses.
A house is an unusually emotional asset. ‘How we live measures our own nature,’ as Philip Larkin put it. Sunak faces the problem that voters’ memories are likely to be long even if the situation dramatically improves, and inflation, as he has promised, is indeed halved by the end of the year. When even pledges you can’t keep feel insufficient, you have a problem.
Added to this is the sense of what 2023 has been: some strikes have been settled – but likely settled too late if settlement was always to be the policy. In addition to all this, while Sir Keir Starmer isn’t by any stretch of the imagination Tony Blair circa 1997, the Labour Party has done a reasonable job rowing back its more extreme policies, especially on climate change, and making a sort of uninspired saunter for the centre ground where elections tend to be won.
Even so, despite these negative indicators for Rishi, there is still a sense in the Party that there is much to play for. The memory of Sir John Major’s victory in 1992 can still occasionally swerve in to calm Party nerves. When I bump into Sir John at the Oval in July, I am reminded that it was here that Major came after the 1997 defeat. But there was a 1992 victory too. His acolytes confirm that he’s supportive of Sunak and will be voting for him. But the economy in 1992 was on the up – and it’s not now.
Four Pillars of Wisdom
So what does Sunak think on the economy? Having watched him steward the public finances for three years, we feel we should know more about what he thinks than perhaps most of us do. At the Two Cities lunch, Sunak gives his ‘four pillars’ of the economy, and they continue to be relevant today – both in terms of policy, and in terms of how Sunak’s mind works. Like many politicians, the tidy drawers of his mind contain easy-to-reel-off lists.
“The first pillar is openness,” he says. “We are trying to make progress on that, and I think we’ve been very successful so far. The UK’s particular strength in financial services is something I know well.” In this, he presumably means that he believes in free trade – except, of course, when it comes to the crucial question of Brexit where he doesn’t. But it’s a reminder of how, when Sunak is in the room with financial types, it is natural for him to remind them that he’s one of them.
He continues: “Secondly, we have to make sure that London is home to innovation, and concept trading and so forth. Thirdly is technology. Again, in a fast-changing environment we need to be sure that this is a competitive place to do business and we need to lead the way in fintech and payments technology and other aspects. The fourth pillar is competitiveness, whether that be capital markets reform, or on tax too.”
Of course, there is a sense in which innovation and technology arguably amount to the same thing – but few would deny that Sunak has given all this serious thought.
Sunak speaks as the former Goldman Sachs employee, the firm which he went to work for straight out of Oxford. He also speaks as a former hedge funder. I am curious to know how these two kinds of experience – government and business – stack up when you move from one to another. When I speak to Lord O’Neill of Gateley, who was Chief Economist at Goldman Sachs before himself moving to the Treasury in the George Osborne days, he draws comparisons which may apply to Sunak: “When I worked in government, to my pleasant surprise I found the quality of the staff in the Treasury to be just as good as at Goldman Sachs – but with greater public spirit. The hard thing for me was that I wasn’t a member of the Conservative Party; I was there to execute a technical role. But I was surrounded by ministers who were obsessed with where they were in terms of political horse-trading.”
This, says O’Neill, is a problem which he found difficult to overcome. “I found their motives troubling. They would decide what to support based on how it would help them in their next job which is extremely different to Goldman Sachs. Even within the same party, competing ideologies were different – often irreconcilably so. In that sense, I witnessed first-hand the ridiculous developments within the Conservative Party: I was shocked as to how crazy it was.”
In understanding how Sunak might have reacted to this identical predicament, it’s important to realise what Sunak’s role really was within the financial services industries. As a general rule, there are two kinds of people at banks and hedge funds: there are the so-called relationship managers, who don’t need to be handsome and immaculate like Sunak, though it certainly helps. Usually, unlike Sunak, they enjoy a drink or two with their prospective clients. But they have to be trusted – good at what Westminster is calls retail politics.
Then there’s the second group: the investment officers, or in more derisory language, the quants. In the popular imagination these are basementy folk, hidden away from human interaction for the compelling reason that they can’t manage human interaction. They choose the allocation of funds, and have great power but had the cards fallen slightly differently they might have been gamers. Sources from his time at Goldman, and his subsequent hedge fund roles say that Sunak was far more the former than the latter. But by Westminster standards where hardly anyone understands economics, especially the people writing about it, Sunak probably qualifies as a policy geek. His success in Westminster, you feel, is partly down to this ability to touch both bases.
But Sunak is still someone you can send into the room. This skillset is the link between Sunak’s two lives in business and in politics. Back at the Two Cities lunch, Sunak zooms out, detailing the broader picture: “I am seeing job confidence not just in London but in the South East. Two thirds of employment for this fantastic industry is actually outside London and the South East and that fills me with confidence.”
Of course, the great question is whether Sunak’s innate support of the financial services sector is good for social mobility or not. For one thing, it certainly generates its rags to riches success stories, a little like Sunak himself, whose upbringing was relatively humble and not exactly typical of someone about to go into the stratosphere both financially and politically. Lord Cruddas would be another – a milkman who ended up in Mayfair.
On the other hand, the statistics seem to suggest that these extraordinary stories of achievement are exceptions. For instance, a 2019 study by KPMG found that 41 per cent of people working in finance in the UK had relatives in the same sector, far above the national average of 12 per cent. The study also showed that students from some backgrounds were less likely than others to get City roles following graduation.
Few who read the FCA’s discussion paper on diversity will feel that the financial services sector is a vital force for equality at this precise moment. By its own admission: “A deep dive study of eight financial firms (including regulators) found that 89 per cent of senior roles are held by people from higher socio‐economic backgrounds.”
Even so, this isn’t to say there isn’t potential for improvement. And Sunak has much to say about what the Treasury can do to improve the levelling up situation in the country. “The best example I have of [levelling up potential] is Teesside next to my North Yorkshire constituency. Teesside is a place which I have championed as an example of what this Government is about: it’s not a big city. It’s in the North but it’s not Leeds, it’s not Manchester and it’s not Newcastle,” he explains.
And what about particular examples? “I just celebrated the fact that in the new Treasury campus there we hired our hundredth person: it’s already transformed the region.” [In 2023, that number is now around 130]. “The combination of the new Freeport, the Treasury Office, the investment in high streets and town centres, all of that is bringing jobs and investment into that area. There is new vaccine manufacturing; there’s offshore wind turbines. You name it, it’s happening there now. There is a sense of optimism and positivity in an area which just five years ago lost 5,000 jobs. That turnaround is quite frankly extraordinary and that is as a result of the policies of this Government.”
These are stories that Sunak will need to tell to stand a chance of a hung Parliament, or a victory at the next election. He also points to a few things begun when he was Chancellor which now continue with him as Prime Minister: “There’s lots of other things we are doing in Government to take advantage of Brexit. Turbo-charged free enterprise zones with trade in customs benefits in places like Humber and Teesside, for example. We’re doing trade deals, taking advantage of these new-found freedoms and signing trade deals in fast-growing economies around the world. Then of course on things like tax and regulation, we can start to do things differently – for instance, we were able to cut VAT on energy saving materials earlier in the Spring Budget.”
Since then, there have been small wins on calming the economy post-Truss, and gradually bringing inflation down. But if you want optimism, you still need to talk to a Cabinet minister – which is why I go to meet Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch.
I sometimes try to imagine Westminster village as an organism made up of exits and entrances. Ministers troop up to Downing Street and swagger out again; flights depart for Washington, the return flight lands; meetings disband, are cancelled, rescheduled, or they’re suddenly back on again. All this feels like it has its inevitability but also a degree of flexibility. But this is also a place with its iron laws. No matter what, every day at around 6pm, a handful of rotating ministers trudge towards the clubs of Mayfair to raise money for the Party.
On a day in June, the minister in question was Kemi Badenoch, currently Secretary of State for Trade and Equalities, who headed down to the Travellers Club to sing for the Party’s supper and to say a few words about the state of play under Rishi Sunak.
“One of the toughest things about being in government is the relentless bad news,” she concedes. “If you were reading what’s going on on Twitter, you’d think the UK was in a state of permanent decline, performing worse than all our peer countries, and that everybody hated each other. But it’s really not the case. Through these once-in-a-generation events – Russia-Ukraine, Covid and the financial crisis – or even leaving the European Union – we have held people together. Business, in particular, has had a tough time – but we’re doing better than Germany, which hasn’t left the EU.”
Badenoch doesn’t mention that this is because Angela Merkel made a nearly incredible series of foolish decisions during her long tenure as Chancellor, cosying up to Putin (and Russian energy) at every turn.
Even so, how can the government push back against this prevailing narrative of a Dilapidated Britain? “We need to not just prove them wrong but to communicate what we’re doing. It’s not enough to do well – you have to show and tell what you’re doing well,” Badenoch says.
And how seriously have the Johnson and Truss administrations harmed the Party’s chances in 2024? “The biggest challenge we have is showing people that we’re still a united Party and have common goals. This is a challenge. After 14 years in power there will be things people wanted to do but didn’t quite get done. It’s natural. Of the 14 years, the first five were spent in Coalition, then we had a small majority, then we had Brexit. After Johnson’s victory, we had only three months before we were all locked up in our homes. People have had a really tough time.”
And Sunak? “He’s doing a very good job. He is doing one of the most difficult things a prime minister has had to do in a very long time. The only way we’ll see another Conservative government is to back him.”
But is it going to be enough? “What we don’t see is all the things we stop happening. We’re the only party which is still able to stay grounded and rooted in reality and tell people how tough things are. It’s important to base an economy on sound money – you can’t spend your way to prosperity. We’re only able to take the decisions we did during Covid because of those years of austerity under David Cameron which everybody hated at the time.”
In Badenoch’s view, there can be no true society – and therefore no viable social mobility – without truth-telling. For her, wokeness has created a distorted reality – but it’s also a sideshow from the things which matter. If we want a better and more socially fluid country, we must better focus on our priorities.
Badenoch also explains that this country is more broadly admired under the Sunak administration that we might realise, immersed as most of us are in the 24-hour news cycle. “Things are different as soon as you step outside the UK. People love our country. We’ve just joined the biggest trading bloc which we have done since leaving the EU. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is not just Commonwealth countries – it’s also Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. They really wanted us in not just because of the trade but because of our values. Some of them are worried about China being on their doorstep and we’re the antidote to that.”
Of course, there are those who would point out that if you really want social mobility in this country to come through trade then you’d be far better off doing a deal with India, which carries the mouthwatering possibility of 240,000 jobs over three years. This statistic comes from the founder of eBookers, and author of The Indian Century Dinesh Dhamija. In our exclusive interview in this issue, he makes the argument that Johnson could have done a deal which has so far eluded Sunak.
In Dhamija’s opinion, sometimes Sunak’s essential slickness means that he can’t create those close relationships with his opposite numbers which are vital for getting things done. Likewise, Sunak’s deal with Biden – the s0-called Atlantic Declaration – was dismissed by some commentators as small beer, even though it does contain some important provisions, including a data bridge to help small companies in both countries export their services and products.
When you listen back to Sunak as Chancellor, the approach feels like it has something of the Johnsonian energy, where the boosterish PM drove things through Parliament at a tremendous rate.
If you go to the House of Lords, and ask about a bit, you soon find that under Sunak the tempo is different – more considered, though not necessarily less ambitious. “It’s not going to be a slam-dunk,” says Baroness Frances D’Souza, the former Leader of the House of Lords, referring to the next election. “I’m not sure if Keir Starmer is a leader, but then neither am I sure about Rishi. But they’re not going to do anything about Rishi – the ruthless Tories – until after the election, if it’s a bad result which I suspect it will be.”
What does D’Souza think of Sunak? “I met him recently. He came across as a nice bloke, a bloke who listens. He’s smart – no doubt about that. He said one thing which I think is tremendously revealing in terms of how he plans to run the government: ‘I believe in doing less and doing it well’. That led to a conversation about the load of legislation which is tumbling down on us. He said: ‘It was on the books when I came in.’ He was basically saying: ‘Not my fault, mate’. So I think if he does continue, that there will be less coming our way.” From D’Souza’s point of view, given the tremendous moral complexity of the Illegal Boats Bill, and the technical maze of The Online Safety Bill (“That’s before you’ve even broached the massive implications of the Retained EU Law Bill!”) this can only be a good thing.
Of course, once the pandemic struck, the Johnson years were always going to be about government intervention – on a scale one would normally associate with a Labour and not a Conservative administration. But for Sunak the paradigm has shifted now the pandemic has ended. He says: “All that expenditure was fair enough while we were in a crisis and had to shut down the economy. We all know that’s not how you create long term wealth and prosperity in a country by relying on the government to do it.”
So what’s the alternative? “It is better that the private sector and business try and come forward and there are three areas that we need to focus on: capital, people and ideas. It is probably worth spending a second on each of those and what we mean by them.”
Sunak is embarking on another list. “If you look at our productivity gap, half of that gap is explained by the lack of capital investment. It has been a longstanding UK problem. Are businesses investing 10 per cent of GDP? If you look at France and Germany or the EEC in general, it’s more like 14 per cent, which is a significant difference. So we will be cutting taxes on capital investment where our regime is not as generous as it could or should be and hopefully that will stimulate investment going forward.”
This measure turned out to be the so-called superdeduction on capital allowances, but for mysterious reasons, the Sunak administration let it expire on March 31st 2023. We approached Downing Street for comment , but received no reply.
Sunak continues: “On people, the issue is technical education. Innovation has historically driven half of our productivity growth. It is considerably slower in the last few years so we need to reinvigorate that. In my opinion, the single biggest explanation for that weakness is lack of investment. Again our private companies just do not invest in research and development at the same rate that most of our competitor countries do by quite a significant difference.”
Gillian Keegan explains that, as PM, Sunak is particularly motivated by education and skills which, she says, he often talks about getting on to do “once he’s sorted out all the things he’s been left to sort”.
She continues: “His big passion is maths to 18, and we spend a lot of time talking about what that would look like. There should be an entrepreneurial element, and a jobs element, and knowing how to buy a house – a lot of this is very attractive to young people. Many of our universities and colleges have set up entrepreneurial centres, and one thing we need to figure out is how to support them in that. We’re not talking about maths being compulsory at A-Level – everyone needs it to be something they want to do.”
Of course, it was Macmillan who spoke of ‘Events, dear boy, events’ as being the reality of the prime minister. It may be that Sunak simply doesn’t have enough time to really place his personal mark on the office he holds.
Thoughts in Number 10
But I wonder how often a prime minister really does hold the reins of government in any meaningful sense. As I head up to 10 Downing Street for a meeting with the MS Society, and say hello to Ian and Ben the security guards, who very kindly mug me of my phone, I never feel I am entering Rishi Sunak’s house. I am entering government – or perhaps, one should say Government.
The process of getting approved to come in has become harder than it was in the Johnson era: a legacy of Cakegate. But inside, nothing really changes. You are lambasted straightaway with tradition – and the sort of traditions you immediately want to assent to if you believe in democracy. It is told in a sort of venerable solemnity. Often here, it’s eerily quiet.
It doesn’t feel like it has anything much to do with individuals; outside on Whitehall, the traffic passes as a reminder that there’s a country out there which demands a better life. Sometimes, one feels there is an obligation to enact a role, and to submit to a series of protocols. These might be reassuring, but they may also be hampering and dissuade people from taking initiative.
To be prime minister is to be temporarily atop all that. I doubt it ever feels like a particularly comfortable existence. As Liz Truss knows, one is never far from hearing the footsteps of obsequious aides very swiftly become the funereal tread of removal men.
And how near the removal men are for Sunak will likely depend on inflation and where it goes in the spring of 2024. So what does Sunak have to say about inflation? “We have to understand that this is a global problem. We have the shutdowns in China, global supply chains, post-Covid prices, Ukraine and the labour market more generally. But we have been very much committed to helping people over the last years in very different types of situations – whether that be helping with the cost of energy bills, cutting fuel duty, raising the minimum wage – or by making Universal Credit more generous for those who move into work, so that we’re rewarding hard work. We stand ready to do more as the situation evolves.”
Then he pauses and adds a crucial caveat: “But we are always going to do it in a way which accords with our values and that means supporting those in work, and making sure that work pays. That’s the most sustainable way of helping people.”
Sustainable – it’s one of the buzzwords of the era, and it’s interesting that Rishi uses it in a different context altogether. In some ways, he’s always been an independent thinker – he saw a way out of Southampton to Oxford and beyond. He was teetotal at school and university. He went into politics when he had enough money not to put himself through the stress of it. His antennae twitched at the opportune moment to move against Boris Johnson, and then he campaigned powerfully against Truss for the leadership though he must have known defeat was inevitable. But his commitment stuck in the mind and was rewarded when Truss unravelled.
But he’s also collegiate. Keegan says: “Rishi is very encouraging but also gets things done. Look at the Windsor Framework: when you consider the column inches which were devoted to this, and the question of whether it was any good or not, and whether it was practicable: he got it through. Look at the way he’s handled the health unions and the teaching unions.”
One might not agree with all this, but it seems pointless to deny that Sunak will have some strong arguments to make to the electorate to continue as prime minister. The question is whether these arguments will prove to be as strong as the forces ranged against him. The costs; the regulation; the strikes; a semi-resurgent Labour. Above all, there is the malaise which whispers to you sometimes that the country has become a sort of unfair parking ticket.
We are shown upstairs. Downing Street is a warren – an unconvincing townhouse which admirably fulfils its purpose of keeping the politicians out of the palaces. I walk through it and we put our pitches to the brilliant special advisor for a neuro taskforce to help combat a whole range of illnesses, including multiple sclerosis. We hope our ideas will drift magically upwards into the brain of the PM. It feels a long shot: we hope for that rare game of Chinese whispers where the last person to speak gets the answer right. But we know that a few words in one of Sunak’s speeches could mean less suffering for some people somewhere down the line. Most of us have personal connections to people with neurological conditions that mean we know the magnitude of that. There’s always a touch of hope attached to any meeting in Downing Street. People bring their best thoughts.
We don’t expect to be heard, but it occurs to me as we make our arguments anyway that I’d rather be making my representations to Rishi Sunak than to many of his predecessors. You know that if our ideas get into his red box, he’ll get to them in a fair-minded and essentially kind and thorough way. That may not be enough to get him re-elected, but I think it’s worth more than we sometimes give him credit for.
12 May 1980 – Born in Southampton to parents of Asian descent
1993-98 – Misses scholarship to Winchester, but his parents scrape together the fees
1998-2001 – Attends Lincoln, College Oxford, reading PPE, graduating with First Class Honours.
2001-2004 – Works as an analyst at Goldman Sachs
2006 – Makes partner at The Children’s Investment Fund Management
2009 – Joins Theleme Partners, a new firm with $700 million under management
August 2009 – Marries Akshata Murty, daughter of N.R. Naryana Murthy, the founder of Infosys
2015 – Enters Parliament as MP for Richmond, William Hague’s former seat.
2019 – Appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury by Boris Johnson
2020 – Succeeds Sajid Javid as Chancellor of the Exchequer, following Javid’s
2022 – Following defeat to Liz Truss in the leadership election, Sunak succeeds her as Prime Minister, becoming the first UK PM of Asian descent.