Sunak: The golden boy who lost his lustre among Tory members

·6-min read

Rishi Sunak, once the golden boy of the Tory Party, is now preparing for a moment of political reckoning as polls point towards a likely defeat in the contest to become prime minister.

After a slick campaign launch saw him emerge as the favoured candidate among Tory MPs, things began to unravel as the contest was turned over to the 180,000 party members.

With only days left in the contest to replace Boris Johnson, in whose fall Mr Sunak played a significant role, all signs seem to suggest that after weeks of hustings and media appearances the Conservative grassroots are poised to pick rival Liz Truss.

While Mr Sunak and his supporters have insisted there is still the chance of an upset, Mr Sunak has appeared in recent days to acknowledge he faces an uphill battle.

“If I actually spent all my time looking at the polls or reading newspapers, I probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning to do all these things,” he said in one recent interview.

It is a long way from his meteoric rise under Mr Johnson, when he rapidly became the Cabinet minister tipped the most likely successor.

Conservative leadership bid
Rishi Sunak has remained resolute in his attacks on Liz Truss and her plans for tax cuts (Niall Carson/PA)

At the start of the pandemic, he was the most popular politician in the country as he rolled out an unprecedented furlough scheme which saved millions of jobs as the economy ground to a halt.

His ambitions had been scarcely concealed since the day he entered No 11, with personalised branding on carefully-curated social media content to boost his public profile along with a concerted campaign to woo MPs.

His attempt to charm Tory voters has proven more difficult, with this undoubted experience handling the economy instead prompting accusations that he represents a Treasury orthodoxy unsuited for the mammoth threat facing the UK economy.

Born in 1980 in Southampton, the son of parents of Punjabi descent, Mr Sunak’s father was a family doctor and his mother ran a pharmacy, where he helped her with the books.

After private schooling at Winchester College, where he was head boy, and a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, he took an MBA at Stanford University in California where he met his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of India’s sixth richest man.

A successful business career, with spells at Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager, meant by the time he decided to enter politics in his early 30s he was already independently wealthy.

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 – 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 among the new intake.

Given his first Government post – as a junior local government minister – by Mr Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, he was an early backer of Mr Johnson for leader when she was forced out amid the fallout over Brexit.

When Mr Johnson entered No 10 in July 2019, there was swift reward with a dramatic promotion to the Cabinet as treasury chief secretary.

An even bigger step up followed in February 2020 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.

The increasingly rapid spread of Covid-19 meant his mettle was swiftly tested. Within a fortnight of his first Budget he was effectively forced to rip up his financial plans as the country went into lockdown.

The new chancellor, who saw himself as a traditional small state, low tax Conservative, began pumping out hundreds of billions in government cash as the economy was put on life support.

But as the country emerged from the pandemic, some of the gloss began to wear off amid growing tensions with his neighbour in No 10 and anger among Tory MPs over rising taxes as he sought to rebuild the public finances.

To add to his woes, he was caught up in the “partygate” scandal, receiving a fine, along with Mr Johnson, for attending a gathering to mark the Prime Minister’s 56th birthday, even though he claimed only to have gone into No 10 to attend a meeting.

There were more questions when it emerged his wife had “non dom” status for tax purposes – an arrangement which reportedly saved her millions – while he had retained a US “green card”, entitling him to permanent residence in the States.

For a man known for his fondness for expensive gadgets and fashionable accessories – and who still has an apartment in Santa Monica – it all looked dangerously out of touch at a time when spiralling prices were putting a financial squeeze on millions across the country.

His frustrations with Mr Johnson’s chaotic style of government – as well as a deepening rift over policy – finally spilled over when he dramatically resigned, prompting the rush for the door by other ministers that forced the Prime Minister to admit his time was up.

Mr Sunak has been unrepentant over his decision to quit, even as he admitted that it was a decision that may have damaged his standing among a grassroots that picked Mr Johnson as prime minister only a few years earlier.

Throughout, he has remained resolute in the view that his rival’s promises of tax cuts in a time of worsening inflation are irresponsible, dangerous and un-Conservative.

Conservative leadership bid
Rishi Sunak, the one-time golden boy, has struggled to excite the Tory membership (Liam McBurney/PA)

His Tory colleagues have not appeared to share that view, with many defecting to the Truss camp over the course of the contest.

The cut-and-thrust of a leadership campaign offers little time for introspection, but Mr Sunak will swiftly need to decide what political path to take if he is defeated in a few days’ time.

While he has expressed some reluctance to join the Cabinet of a prime minister he disagrees with, he will be keenly aware that a spell in the backbenches will offer limited opportunities for a second shot at No 10.

Whether he can pull of a shock victory or not, it is clear that for the sake of his political future, this one-time golden-boy needs to rediscover his lustre.