What type of person is the Prime Minister? That was a question many Britons would have been asking when Rishi Sunak first took office, with him only having been in the spotlight of frontline politics for three and a half years. One year on, he has given little away but some clues are offered by how he has spent his time away from the job.
Sunak is a fan of ‘trash TV’, according to those who know him well. Bridgerton and Emily in Paris are two favoured Netflix boxsets. Heart 00s is his radio station of choice, packed with cheesy classics from the first decade of the new millennium. One aide recalled how, once, during a late-night ride back in a ministerial car, Sunak belted out Britney Spears’s ‘Baby One More Time’. ‘He was singing along. He knew all the words,’ the source said.
Sunak can rap the opening to Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’, as he once proved in an interview. His love of Jilly Cooper bonkbusters also appears genuine, the prime minister eagerly telling journalists on one foreign trip that the Rutshire Chronicles series, starting with the novel Riders, was his favourite. ‘He just wants to do something that is just total escapism,’ said a Downing Street adviser. Anything too close to his profession is vetoed. He waved away the recommendation to start watching the political series The Diplomat for that reason.
Sunak’s pastime pursuits can have the ring of teenage banality. The Star Wars and James Bond franchises are among his top films (while Jaws is one of Boris’s favourites). The Beatles is his favourite band. His penchant for Nando’s, the chicken restaurant chain, was such that he kept his own set of their branded sauce bottles in the Treasury. ‘He was a medium-hot guy,’ said an aide. Chicken club sandwiches were also a favoured lunch order.
Despite being slim-built and only 5ft 6in tall, he has a notably sweet tooth. ‘He just always has some sort of chocolate bar on the go,’ said a Treasury insider. Sunak does not drink alcohol: he was made to down vodka shots on his stag do and hated the taste.
His love of Coca-Cola has been broadcast far and wide, not least thanks to a giggling clip featuring two school pupils that went viral in which he confessed to being a ‘total Coke addict’. A full-sugar version of the pop drink was a treat for Sunak on Saturday nights when running the UK economy. Following a meeting in California with the ‘leader of the free world’, President Joe Biden, the plane home was stocked with bottles of Mexican Coke, known for being especially sickly.
For the most part he has been seen as a geek – but this portrayal is not a perfect fit. There is also a strong strain of ‘tech bro’, honed during his years surrounded by the unicorns of Silicon Valley while studying for his MBA. During flights on foreign trips, Sunak will often change into a hoodie, tracksuit bottoms and socks before padding down to the back of the plane for a chat with reporters: a striking change from predecessors who would stay in formal attire. Sunak’s Palm Angels black sliders – plastic slip-on footwear – caused such a stir when he was pictured in them as chancellor that they made it onto the front of his Christmas cards.
He has a weakness for gizmos. He got into hot water when a £180 ‘smart’ coffee mug that maintains the liquid’s temperature was seen in photographs that were released showing his Budget preparations. In Number 10, he was spotted using an ‘erasable ink’ pen, allowing for corrections. He also has a Peloton bike in the Number 10 flat. He has previously named Cody Rigsby as his favourite Peloton instructor, noting – again – the frequency with which Britney Spears is played in classes.
It is in the tech scene that Sunak feels most comfortable, according to a former Tory chancellor: ‘When he’s sitting down with a bunch of corporates, FTSE CEOs, his eyes glaze over. When he sits down with some start-ups and unicorns and Californian types, his eyes light up.’
Cycling is not his only sporting pastime. Sunak runs. He clocked in a 10km at 47 minutes and 41 seconds in May 2023 – a time none of his prime ministerial predecessors is likely to have matched. He genuinely follows football, specifically his hometown club of Southampton. According to one of his aides, he expressed bemusement at Johnson dressing up in an England football shirt despite not liking the sport.
Sunak is also a cricket fan. At the Treasury he had a signed England team bat in his office that he would swing about, practising forward defensive shots and cover drives while mulling things over with officials. In the evenings, he would sometimes head to nets at the Oval with his cousin.
During the working day, when an England Test was on, he would keep the BBC’s ball-by-ball online coverage up on his computer so that he could track the match’s progress. Appearing on the BBC’s beloved live commentary programme Test Match Special in July 2023, during the Ashes series, Sunak admitted diving into a statistical breakdown of England’s 2022 performance to investigate whether ‘Bazball’ was working.
The Prime Minister, whose grandparents were from India, described past family days out at Hampshire matches.
Another reflection of his Indian ancestry comes in Sunak’s religion. He is the first Hindu prime minister, holding dear the teachings and principles of the religion, according to those who know him well. ‘The thing that Hinduism gives to him is about values and what it teaches about how you treat other people, what respect means, what kind of person you are. He is a very values-based person,’ said one ally.
On becoming chancellor, Sunak placed a small statue of the deity Shri Ganesh on his desk, a symbol of good luck in new endeavours. He left it there for Boris Johnson when, battling Covid-19, the then-prime minister was isolated in an area of the Downing Street complex that included the chancellor’s study. The statue would continue to sit on Sunak’s desk in Number 10.
When it comes to his professional life, one feature universally pointed to by colleagues is Sunak’s unrelenting work ethic. ‘He feels the weight of the responsibility very strongly. It’s a very Indian thing, this idea of public service and duty,’ said an ally. Some of his team traced it back to his childhood.
When he was growing up, the Sunaks were not dripping in money. Despite the ‘richest MP’ tag regularly attached to Sunak, that vast wealth came through his marriage to Akshata Murty, whose father, Narayana Murthy, is an Indian billionaire entrepreneur. Sunak’s own father, Yashvir, was a GP, working round the clock to pay to send Sunak to board at Winchester, a public school, while his mother, Usha, ran a pharmacy, the young Rishi at times helping keep the books.
‘His dad literally worked seven days a week without a day off, taking every on-call shift that he could, because he wanted to earn money to put away to save for education,’ said a Sunak ally. ‘He grew up watching his dad do that and, as the eldest of the three children, Rishi was much more attuned to what his parents were doing.’
Today, Sunak prefers working late rather than starting super-early. He is normally at his office by 7.30 or 8am, with meetings in the first half of the day where possible so that he can dedicate time to his ministerial red box in the second half, sometimes until 10pm.
He has a sharp intellect, honed while rising through the educational ranks: he was head boy at both his prep school, Stroud School, and at Winchester. He got a first-class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Oxford University before beating fierce competition to a Fulbright scholarship which took him to Stanford.
‘Sunak the head boy’ became a favourite trope for political cartoonists, the cleaner-than-clean swot image taking hold largely because it rang true. But it also ignores the hours he puts in. ‘Rishi is fifth gear, 100 per cent, full of energy, committed to his work,’ said Dominic Raab, who was Sunak’s deputy prime minister. ‘If it hadn’t been in politics he would have been like that in business.’
A former Treasury colleague said: ‘His answer to most things is to work harder.’
This approach brings an intensive thoroughness to his ministerial work - and others are expected to step up too. Sunak as chancellor had a habit of requesting to talk to junior officials whose speciality he wanted to master. It was a sign of his determination to understand policy in depth and his willingness to listen to young staffers – but it also required them to be contactable at the drop of a hat, at weekends or in the evening. Some in Downing Street believed Sunak had a photographic memory, such was his ability to conjure up specifics from reading materials, though he always denied that.
Sunak’s determined focus meant there could be frustration, often not well hidden, when reporters used press conferences on specific announcements to ask him about other topics. Sunak was not an avid consumer of newspapers. He would sometimes scroll through the front pages but had an unusual arms-length approach to the press. Instead he would rely on the early briefings from his communications team.
As with all politicians, press scrutiny could lead to irritation. ‘He could sometimes be a bit thin-skinned,’ said one colleague from the Treasury days. ‘You see that in interviews, he can sometimes get a bit grumpy.’
But one key feature of Sunak the boss was the strong bond he built with a tight-knit group of advisers. His core team barely changed between the Treasury and Number 10 – a testament to the loyalty Sunak instilled.
Abridged extract from The Right To Rule, out 28 September (John Murray, £25); pre-order at books.telegraph.co.uk