How Rishi Sunak Went From Tory Unknown to 'Dishy Rishi'

Thanks to coronavirus, the ex-hedge funder turned chancellor is commanding the biggest stage of his life.
April 17, 2020, 8:52am
Rishi Sunak
Illustration: Helen Frost

In the middle of a global health crisis, Rishi Sunak has risen from obscurity to become one of the most powerful figures in British politics. More importantly, posh white women adore him, making the rest of the world realise they can too!

In the last two weeks, the Chancellor of the Exchequer – only two months into the job – has become a political phenomenon, with op-eds discussing “Dishy Rishi” and many touting him as Boris Johnson’s successor. Weeks away from his 40th birthday, Sunak has become one of the youngest chancellors in history while simultaneously inheriting the worst economic downturn since the 2008 crisis. (Insert joke about Asian overachievement here.)

Sunak made his debut on the national consciousness with his cameos in the daily government briefings on coronavirus. While Boris Johnson looked evasive and insincere, Sunak appeared firm and decisive. He was giving away money – all £30 billion of it – with a promise that nobody would be left behind. The magic money tree that eludes most Tory chancellors was in full bloom for Sunak, and his confidence marked an end to the George Osborne and Sajid Javid-era of bloodsucking austerity.

By the beginning of April, online fawning over “Dishy Rishi” hit feverish levels. The phenomenon – initially spawned by thirsty responses to a picture of him in a grey hoodie – materialised into two tone-deaf at best (and racially fetishised at worst) pieces in GQ and Vogue. Both pieces reiterated his public characterisation as nerdy, cute and capable. Flora Gill’s apparent horniness for the chancellor – and her mother Amber Rudd’s online interaction with this scintillating piece of content – was cringeworthy enough. But as writers Diyora Shadijanova and Poorna Bell have pointed out, the implication that fancying an Indian man was unexpected and somehow strange was worse.

One inaccurate, oft-repeated claim by these lust-stricken columnists is that Sunak has come out of nowhere – a fiscally capable version of the “medic you had a crush on in the first term of your first year”, as Vogue put it. But Sunak’s past history as a banker and Tory MP should give anyone pause before uttering the words “Sexy Sunak”.

Sunak was born in 1980 to a doctor father and pharmacist mother in Southampton. The child of first-generation immigrants, his parents came to the UK with his grandparents around 60 years ago from East Africa. He attended Winchester, the private all-boys boarding school in Hampshire with eye-watering yearly fees of £41,709, where he became head boy. He quickly moved on to another exclusive institution by studying PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) – the degree of choice for aspiring politicians – at Oxford. It seems that Sunak was adept from a young age at navigating the predominantly white and upper-class establishments that historically thrust the country’s wealthiest into powerful positions. Other Tory politicians of South Asian heritage have had noticeably less privileged routes into politics – Sajid Javid and Priti Patel both shunned Oxbridge and went to a comprehensive and a grammar school respectively.

In many ways, Sunak is a cookie-cutter Conservative politician with the PPE degree to match. The main difference is he chose not to fawn over Thatcher with student Tories and became president of the Oxford University Investment Society. Sunak the undergraduate would have been thrilled to see his older self deliver his first budget only weeks into the job – something his predecessor Sajid Javid never got the chance to.

Rishi Sunak leaving Downing St

Rishi Sunak leaving Downing Street. Photo: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

“He’s seen as someone who’s got a huge amount of competence and risen to the occasion of delivering a budget at short notice,” says Novara contributing editor Ash Sarkar. “That’s helped in part by the Greek chorus of posh white ladies saying they’re thirsting over him.”

Coronavirus has plunged the world economy into recession, but Sunak has already faced one global cataclysm: the 2008 financial crisis. Shortly after graduating from Oxford, Sunak worked at Goldman Sachs as a junior analyst in the merchant banking division. After studying for his MBA as a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford, Sunak joined the Children’s Investment Fund Management, a London-based firm founded by billionaire Chris Hohn.

The controversial hedge fund made a name for itself as one of the most successful and aggressive hedge funds of the financial boom. In 2007, the company launched a campaign against the Dutch bank ABN Amro, leading to its purchase by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). A year later, the resulting debt led to the government handing RBS a whopping £45 billion bailout during the financial meltdown.

“Living it [the financial crash] was stressful,” Sunak said of the time in a Political Thinking interview with Nick Robinson last year. (The Treasury says Sunak was not involved with the RBS deal.) But when asked how he felt about the reverberations of the crisis – which saw taxpayers bailing out the banks – Sunak prevaricated.

“My feeling is that people have moved on,” he said of the event which the Harvard Business Review described as “[corroding] the bonds of trust required for the functioning of democracy”, adding that the new “corporate thing people obsess about” was big tech. (Interestingly, there is no mention of Sunak’s experience in hedge funds on his website.)

Sunak’s characterisation as the down-to-earth Tory stumping up money to help the country get through coronavirus is ironic, mainly because of the extreme wealth in his own household. At Stanford, he met and subsequently married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of an Indian billionaire, and with whom he has two children. The couple own at least four properties totalling £10 million across the UK and the US – including a five-bedroom home in London valued at £7 million alone.

When he left finance, Sunak decided to serve the community. After William Hague stood down in 2015 as Conservative MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire, Sunak took a gamble and ran as Hague’s successor. He bet right, and won, becoming the first MP of South Asian heritage for the constituency. On Political Thinking, Sunak joked that his family represents the sum total of ethnic diversity in the area.

Becoming an MP marked the first step in a seamless political career, in which Sunak consistently chose right. Many politicians spend their entire lives attempting to become chancellor, but Sunak got there in five years. He voted leave in the 2016 referendum, aligning himself with Johnson early, and his only misdemeanour was joining Michael Gove’s leadership camp after David Cameron resigned. He rectified this two years later, when Theresa May made her ignominious exit, and dutifully returned to Johnson.

It was a move that paid off: he was rewarded with a Cabinet position as chief Treasury secretary under then-Chancellor Sajid Javid. He served under Javid, at one point calling him a “mentor” and a “good friend” – they even watched Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker together. (“Great night out with the boss – Jedi Master @SajidJavid,” Sunak enthused in a now-infamous tweet.)

Sunak’s career took an unexpectedly Shakespearean turn when Javid dramatically quit in February, though Sunak, the Star Wars fan who dreamed of being a Jedi knight as a child, might better describe this as his Darth Vader versus Obi-Wan moment. Javid was famously given an ultimatum to keep his position on the condition he sacked all of his advisors. It was the culmination of months of tension between Johnson, his advisor Dominic Cummings, and Javid, in which Johnson and Cummings sought greater control over the Treasury, which traditionally operates separately to No.10. Javid later said that “no self-respecting minister” could accept those terms. Cue: Rishi Sunak, the minister who could.

“He’s young and a lot more amenable to what the government want to do,” says former Guardian columnist and Jacobin staff writer Dawn Foster. She argues that Javid was a lot more experienced as a minister, meaning that he pushed back on government policy – something that is less of a threat with Sunak. “I think Boris needed to get some loyalists into the Cabinet and Rishi is young with no real backstory, and no real history. He’s perfect for the Treasury as they wanted someone to carry out exactly what Number 10 wanted.”

For all the claims of Sunak’s competence, there are flaws with his COVID-19 emergency measures. The five-week wait for Universal Credit is still in place, despite nearly a million people applying in just a fortnight. Despite the promised grants for self-employed workers, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that two million workers could be left out and unable to access help. The question is whether these are oversights or deliberate gaps in policy.

Reports from people who work with him is that “he reads everything that crosses his desk”, Sarkar says. “He reads the details. The gaps of the package to support workers are not because of an ‘i’ he didn’t dot, or a ‘t’ he didn’t cross. It’s indicative of residual hawkishness of deficit reduction.”

She adds: “He’s a pragmatic political operator, but never forget his true colours, which are deregulation, low tax and low public spending – it’s where his heart is.”

His briefing speeches have begun to hint at this return. On his 8th April daily briefing, he said that all of the money promised will “need to be paid back at some point”. At some point, Sunak’s image as kindly “money printer go brrr” benefactor will crumble. “After coronavirus, there’ll be pressure from Number 10 to claw back the money,” Foster points out. If so, Sunak will have to preside over a second version of austerity – and his public appeal as Mister Spendy Nice Guy will evaporate. Presumably, that would mean his credentials as the Tory-Lite Politician It’s OK to Fancy will take a hit, too.

For now, Sunak is pretty safe, if not perfectly poised for a future in Number 10. But if coronavirus has proven anything, it’s that anything can happen in a few months.

@RuchoSharma