Private school polish and big dreams: how Rishi Sunak became a contender for PM

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<span>Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

“Let me tell you a story,” Rishi Sunak says in his soft-voiced campaign launch video, highlighting his status as the grandson of hard-grafting Indian immigrants.

If he wins the race for No 10, the 42-year-old would be the first person of colour to be the UK prime minister, and the first practising Hindu, in a historic break with the past. Yet, in other ways, his story is as establishment as it comes: private school, PPE at Oxford, the City, the Tory party.

He was born in Southampton, where he and his family still provide a meal once a year to local worshippers at the Hindu temple co-founded by Sunak’s grandfather, Ramdas Sunak, in 1971 – shortly after he emigrated from India with his wife and their son, Sunak’s father, Yash.

During this year’s visit, in July, the then chancellor was being introduced to a group of young children, aged four to nine, when one asked: “Are you the prime minister?”

“We all burst out laughing,” said Sanjay Chandarana, the president of the Vedic Society temple. “I don’t remember what [Sunak] said particularly but obviously there was a smile on his face.”

It was an apposite question. Sunak resigned as chancellor 48 hours later, helping to start a dramatic chain of events that forced Boris Johnson from Downing Street.

There was “no hint at all” that Sunak was considering quitting, said Chandarana, who spent almost five hours with him. Sunak led prayers with his wife, Akshata Murty, their daughters, Krishna and Anoushka, and his parents.

“He just came as a normal person – no one realised he was there – he just went and sat on the floor in the middle of everyone when the prayers were happening. The next thing he went in the kitchen and made chapattis,” said Chandarana, adding that they were “perfectly round” and “we were throwing jokes around that he must cook at home”.

Sunak is joined by his wife, Akshata Murty, and his daughters during his Tory leadership campaign last month.
Sunak is joined by his wife, Akshata Murty, and his daughters during his Tory leadership campaign last month. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Sunak’s roots may lie here in the local temple but his self-confidence and polish, which have propelled him into the final two in the hard-fought Conservative leadership race, are exactly what his parents hoped they were buying when they saved up to send him to Winchester – one of England’s top private schools.

“You can see the success of it. You get an education, you get a good job, you have respect, you go up in your status, and things become easier,” his mother, Usha, a pharmacist, told a BBC documentary in 2001.

With his easy manners and willingness to work hard, Sunak became head boy and won himself a place at Lincoln College, Oxford. He told the same documentary – filmed in his final year at university – “it does put me in an elite of achievement definitely in society, but I’ll always consider myself professional middle class.”

One of his economics tutors at Oxford, who preferred not to be named, praised the young Sunak as “a very mature undergraduate”.

They said: “He was a really excellent student. He was really interested, he really wanted to understand, he cared about things, and he worked hard. He couldn’t have been a better student really. He listened, he absorbed things, he asked good questions.”

His former tutor professes to have been “very surprised” when Sunak popped up years later on Newsnight – and “rather shocked” that he was there to speak for Boris Johnson, having shown few political leanings in his student days.

While he may not have set his sights on No 10, Sunak does appear to have been determined to make plenty of money. He joined an investment club at the University of Oxford, which hosted talks by City high-flyers – and scored himself a graduate job at Goldman Sachs.

Sunak never rose to be much more than a junior member of financial firms he joined and, when he became chancellor in 2020, the Guardian struggled to find many people in the City who had come across him. This is perhaps unsurprising, as Sunak had quit finance by the time he reached his early 30s.

He left Goldman Sachs to do an MBA at Stanford in the US between 2004 and 2006, where he met his wife, Murty, the daughter of NR Narayana Murthy (Akshata dropped the “h”), the billionaire founder of the global IT firm Infosys. She owns a near 1% stake in the company.

As well as finding a fabulously wealthy spouse, Sunak picked up key aspects of his political philosophy during his time in California.

As he told the US venture capital journalist Harry Stebbings, of his time at Stanford: “Other than an appreciation of the weather, it’s also a home of entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation, and those are probably the most important ways being out there in the US changed my life in terms of the trajectory that I was on.”

It was then back to the less heady climate of the City of London, before he and Murty were married in what was billed as “Bangalore’s wedding of the year” in August 2009. Friends from Stanford gathered alongside some of India’s wealthiest tycoons and stars from the world of sport.

Yet despite the stellar guest list many observers noted that the “big fat Bangalore wedding” was almost modest for Indian standards. Murty wore “minimal and basic jewellery”, said one media report, perhaps in tune with her parents’ “almost ascetic” lifestyle, in spite of their vast wealth.

That same year Sunak moved to the US to work, before ultimately leaving for politics, in 2013.

In another of his slickly produced campaign videos, Sunak’s predecessor as MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire, William Hague, describes the selection meeting at which Sunak was chosen as the candidate, when hundreds of local members gathered to cast their eyes over the hopefuls.

“A farmer would be good, or a military man, some of them chuntered on the way in. We need a local candidate, said others, or, obviously they have to come from Yorkshire, that’s a given.” But it was Sunak, with his combination of private school polish and the big ambitions he picked up in Stanford, who clinched the nomination.

Hague then recalls him working tirelessly to hold the seat for the Tories. Footage from the time shows Sunak listening earnestly to flat-capped farmers and helping out with early morning milking – always spotlessly, and expensively, dressed.

In 2015, Sunak and Murty bought a £1.5m manor house in the ancient hamlet of Kirby Sigston in his constituency. His daughters are sometimes seen riding ponies around their Grade II-listed home and playing with local children when they visit.

The Sunaks’ garden parties are one of the hottest tickets in town. They have been known to splash out on feasts of roast venison, canapés and champagne – but most get-togethers are less extravagant. “They have a nice house with a lawn leading down to a little pond and we gather there and have cups of tea and chat,” said Carl Les, the Conservative leader of North Yorkshire county council.”

Sunak arrived in the House of Commons in 2015, as David Cameron secured a surprise majority after five years of coalition with the Lib Dems – and having reluctantly promised an in/out referendum on what came to be known as Brexit.

In his maiden speech Sunak professed his belief in “a compassionate Britain, that provides opportunity and values freedom”.

Freedom featured again when, eight months later, he explained to his local newspapers, the Yorkshire Post and the Darlington & Stockton Times, that despite his erstwhile mentors Cameron and Hague backing remain, he was plumping for Brexit.

“For me, this is a once in a generation opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny. Of course, leaving will bring some uncertainty, but on balance I believe that our nation will be freer, fairer and more prosperous outside the EU,” he said.

Sunak won his first junior ministerial post in January 2018, when the embattled Theresa May carried out a botched reshuffle.

One longtime Tory special adviser who worked with him at that time said “he got to grips with a really difficult policy brief really quickly”, but showed himself to be a workaholic.

“It is a bit of a problem,” they said. “I have never known a minister in my life to work until 2am.” Another person who has seen how Sunak operates said it was “essentially like working for a banker”.

Having made one winning political bet with Brexit, Sunak made another when May’s troubled premiership finally crumbled. Alongside Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick he came out early and backed Boris Johnson to be the next Conservative leader.

“The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us,” said the headline on a Times article written by the ambitious trio, all of whom were subsequently given senior posts in Johnson’s first administration.

Sunak became chief secretary to the Treasury in July 2019. Just seven months later he was catapulted into the job of chancellor when Sajid Javid resigned in disgust, rather than accept a plan cooked up by Dominic Cummings, in which Javid’s special advisers would be replaced by a team shared with No 10.

He arrived in post at an extraordinary moment, as the gravity of the Covid pandemic slowly began to dawn on Downing Street. Within weeks, Johnson was urging the public to stay in their homes, and Sunak was announcing the multibillion-pound furlough scheme.

One official who worked with him praised his ability to grasp the scale of the situation. “He did switch gear and realise it before the rest of the system, and pushed and pushed the system to think more radically about what you might do in that kind of environment,” they said.

Mark Harper, the former chief whip who was an early Sunak backer, said: “The thing that tells me about his character, is that if you throw an emergency at him, or something unexpected or left-field – and frankly that happens to prime ministers a lot – he’s got the capacity, both in terms of his intellect but also his character, to be able to grab it, understand it, and then make a well thought through decision at the right pace.”

Less praise was heaped on “eat out to help out”, however, the cut-price meal deal heavily branded with Sunak’s signature, which research subsequently suggested may have caused a sixth of new Covid clusters in that intra-lockdown summer of 2020.

And at the same time, Sunak was having to wrestle with how to work alongside Johnson, a very different political character.

“The Boris world was quite a weird one, and learning to navigate that,” said the official. “I remember when he first really understood that what Boris said and what Boris did weren’t really related. I think he was frustrated, he thought it was not how business should be done.”

And as time went on, it became clear just how out of kilter that emergency furlough scheme was with his broader philosophy – small state fiscal conservatism with a dash of west coast “tech bro”.

While professing himself to be a tax-cutter, Sunak raised taxes in the UK more rapidly than most other major economies, rather than see Johnson’s spending plans funded by higher borrowing – an approach deeply unpopular with Tory members, if leadership polling is anything to go by.

And he has repeatedly been found wanting when confronting the cost of living crisis, displaying a habit of what one senior official described as “underreacting to events in prospect, and then eventually doing what’s necessary when the time comes”.

John McDonnell, the former Labour shadow chancellor, who was Sunak’s opposite number in his early months at the Treasury, said: “On a personal basis I had no problems with him, but I found him overconfident, very full of himself but very lacking in political depth.”

Harper rejects the characterisation of Sunak as slow to react to a crisis, saying: “I don’t think that’s fair: it’s been a rapidly changing situation.”

One sceptical Tory adviser described Sunak’s politics as “paternalism – it’s, I know best, trust me, look at me, I’m rich and clever,” adding: “I think the problem with him is he’s very politically naive, and he has no idea that’s how he comes across.”

With Johnson’s premiership on the rocks over Partygate earlier this year, scrutiny of Sunak, as leadership frontrunner, ramped up – including of his and Murty’s immense personal wealth.

The Sunaks are worth £730m, with their main asset being Murty’s £690m holding in Infosys, according to this year’s Sunday Times rich list, which also calculated the holding should have delivered about “£54m in dividends over the past seven and a half years – including £11m in 2021”.

Until public outcry prompted a U-turn, his wife was a non-dom, meaning she avoided UK taxes on her international earnings in return for paying an annual charge of £30,000. Without that status she could have been liable for more than £20m of UK tax on these windfalls.

Sunak himself admitted holding a US green card – signalling an intention eventually to become an American citizen – until October 2021, months after becoming chancellor.

Some colleagues assessing potential leadership candidates were unimpressed at the awkward way Sunak handled being questioned about these issues. “It showed he has a bit of a glass jaw,” said one veteran MP.

Yet when Sunak resigned – minutes after Javid took the same decision – colleagues viewed it as a clear signal that he had not surrendered his ambitions.

That fateful choice, together with his zeal for fixing the public finances, may have cost him this bitter leadership race, with many Tory members apparently still regretting Johnson’s demise.

Already, MPs are speculating that if he misses out on the big prize, the Sunak-Murtys could set their sights on a sunnier life away from the public gaze, and head to California, where, as Sunak gushed in an interview earlier this year: “everyone is interested in changing the world, and they start with the biggest of dreams”.

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