While Boris Johnson sinks, Rishi Sunak is on the rise


LONDON: Breakfast starts at 8am and guests help themselves to croissants and juice before the sleek figure of Rishi Sunak, the British chancellor of the exchequer, works his way around the crowded, oakpanelled dining room of his official London home, No. 11 Downing Street.
For Sunak, meetings with groups of Conservative Party lawmakers help him reach out and forge a network of support in parliament. For the lawmakers, it’s a chance to meet someone many expect to one day move next door — to No. 10, the PM’s home. Sunak was virtually unknown 10 months ago, and his vertiginous rise has surprised almost everyone in British politics — in all likelihood even the man who promoted him, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose approval ratings have plummeted during the pandemic.
“Rishi Sunak has the strengths that the Prime Minister so conspicuously lacks, not only basic competence but a grasp of detail,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “And no one has mounted such an obvious, in your face, social media campaign as Rishi Sunak”, he added.
It seems to be working. A recent poll of party members by the Conservative Home website placed Sunak, 40, easily top of cabinet satisfaction ratings, while Johnson was almost bottom of the list. Contrast that with a survey that Bale conducted in December in which Conservative Party members were asked who should take over were Johnson to step aside. “Just five out of 1,191 named Rishi Sunak. And I’m not sure that all of them spelt his name correctly”, he said.
When he was catapulted into his job in February, after two years as a minister — including six months in the No. 2 job at the treasury — Sunak was firmly in the shadow of Johnson, who had just won a landslide election victory.
But while Johnson has floundered during the coronavirus pandemic, Sunak has been a beacon of calm and competence, intervening swiftly to spend billions of pounds supporting jobs as the economy went into lockdown free fall. With new restrictions coming into force in parts of the country, Sunak has announced new state support for affected areas, and on Monday he gave a fluent defence of his latest measures at a news conference alongside Johnson.
Perhaps wisely, given the speculation about his ambitions, Sunak tried to burst his own bubble when the Conservative Party held its recent party conference virtually. In a surprisingly short speech, he lavished praise on Johnson and warned that uncomfortable economic choices lay ahead. The subliminal message seemed to be, “You might like me a little less when all this cash has to be paid back.”
But right now, they like him a lot, and his appeal among nonpartisan Britons has been burnished through slick social media posts on Instagram and Twitter designed around “Brand Rishi.” Allies insist that Sunak is simply using digital media techniques to communicate more effectively rather than to promote his ambitions. His posts stand out from the drab detritus of political advertising, though. Often they feature a stylish photo of the chancellor endorsing a policy with his distinctive signature, rather like a celebrity might promote an expensive fitness accessory.
This was probably not what Johnson expected when he promoted Sunak to take over from Sajid Javid, who resigned as chancellor after refusing to accept curbs on his right to hire his own advisers. Sunak agreed, leading some to speculate that he would be more compliant. In UK, the relationship between PM and chancellor is often one of rivalry and tension. So the idea in February was to ensure that there was one centre of power on economic policy: in No. 10.
But few PM can afford to fire two chancellors, so Johnson was taking a risk in appointing someone as adept and diligent as Sunak. Not only is Sunak a smooth communicator, but, with his Indian heritage, he is a walking success story of modern multiracial Britain.
His grandparents, originally from Punjab, arrived in England from British colonial East Africa in the 1960s. As a teenager, he says he suffered racist abuse. Sunak’s father was a doctor and his mother ran a pharmacy. Together, they earned enough to send him to an elite private school, Winchester College.
Without that expensive education, Sunak might well still have reached Oxford University (he graduated with top grades). Sunak also earned an MBA at Stanford University, where he met his future wife, Akshata Murthy, daughter of Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys. Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds before being elected to Parliament in 2015.

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