The Conservative Party is determined to introduce “the real Rishi” to the electorate.
Almost a year since he took over as prime minister, Rishi Sunak still has to define himself in the eyes of the British public. He succeeded two vivid personalities: Boris Johnson is the centre of attention wherever he goes, and Liz Truss is one of the oddest people to have held high office. Sunak also inherited such a complete mess that he had to devote most of his time to cleaning up and fixing the Downing Street machinery. To most voters he remains a blur.
In the normal run of things, prime ministers get years to introduce themselves to the public. They do their time as leader of the opposition. They lead their party in a general election with all the razzmatazz that entails-a manifesto that encapsulates their political vision, a leader’s debate, a pack of journalists following you 24 hours a day. Sunak was a deus ex machina.
The Truss administration imploded so spectacularly that the party anointed Sunak without the formality of holding an election of party members let alone consulting the country. The chaos was such that he took part in his first Prime Minister’s Questions time on the very day that he took office. Before that, his rise had been so rapid that he didn’t have time to establish a political personality: He entered parliament in 2015 after a career in finance — not for him the decades of traipsing from one unwinnable seat to another and getting to know the party and its voters. At 42, he was the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool came to power in 1812, and he had only served in one government department, the department of communities and local government, before moving to the notoriously inward-looking and technocratic Treasury.
What’s the one thing that most people know about Sunak?
Sunak is thus doing politics in reverse — introducing himself to the public after taking the highest office in the land. With an election due as soon as the spring, Sunak’s inner team — a tightly knit brain trust that includes James Forsyth, his political secretary, Liam Booth-Smith, his chief of staff, and Isaac Levido, his political guru — is determined to flesh out the public’s image of the prime minister with distinctive policies and pivotal speeches.
There is a degree of defensiveness about this: The one thing that most people know about him is that he’s extremely rich, an image that has been burnished by leaks to the press, presumably from rival candidates to the Conservative crown, about his wearing £335 ($409) sneakers, for example. But there is also an ambitious strategy: The brain trust recognises that the Party’s only chance of winning when you’re 15 to 20 points behind in the polls is to make the election as presidential as possible. Focus on the toxic brand that is the Conservative Party and you are doomed. Turn the election into Sunak versus Keir Starmer and you might just pull off a surprise.
Letting Rishi be Rishi is a higher-risk strategy than you might think given how straightforward his views are...But given that the Labour Party has been ahead in the polls by double digits since Sunak took office, the Tory Party has no choice but to roll the dice and let Rishi be Rishi.
So, the coming months will produce a great deal of Sunak-themed schmaltz. How he likes to eat McDonald’s breakfast wraps with his daughters. How he’s a lifelong fan of Southampton Football Club. How he’s a workaholic who keeps going late into the evening. It will also see a volley of personal attacks on Sunak driven by Labour’s recognition that he’s the party’s strongest asset. How Sunak and his heiress wife Akshata Murthy have an estimated worth of £529 million. How he will skip off back to California as soon as he’s out of high office. A well-placed Labour source even questions the sincerity of his passion for football compared with Starmer’s genuine passion. What is the truth behind these assertions? Who is the “real Rishi” behind the clouds of puffery and hails of brickbats?
The most important thing to know about Sunak is that, in a profession increasingly run by professional illusionists and spin doctors, what you see is what you get. A veteran Tory watcher says that the only thing extraordinary about David Cameron was his very ordinariness: He did all the conventional things for a member of his class (Eton, Oxford, the Tory Research Department) while holding all the conventional views for a member of his demographic (liberal on social mores, free market on economics). The same is true of Sunak, but this time the key ingredient isn’t class but immigration. His parents were textbook upwardly mobile immigrants who enjoyed successful professional careers (his father was a doctor and his mother a pharmacist) and scrimped and saved to send their son to the best academic school in Britain, Winchester. This was the Jewish story in the postwar years and is the Hindu story today.
Britain’s most true-blue Conservative leader
The “what you see is what you get” also extends to his conservatism. Sunak is the most true-blue Conservative leader that Britain has had since Iain Duncan-Smith. He leans to the right rather than the left of the party.
Sunak is the triple package — a fiscal, economic and social conservative. He is viscerally opposed to spending money the country doesn’t have. Though he suspended his principles during the Covid-19 pandemic — proclaiming that this is “not a time for ideology and orthodoxy, this is a time to be bold” and spending more than £400 billion — he tried to restore order once the worst was over.
Sunak is also an instinctive social conservative. He’s not only a stark contrast with Johnson, who has nine children by several women. He’s a stark contrast to Cameron’s generation Tories, who felt a need to publicise their bohemian values.
This dislike meant that his relationship with Johnson, who never saw a grand project that he didn’t want to fund, was always fraught. It has also inspired his most controversial move to date: His decision to prune spending on the high-speed rail line (HS2), which was meant to link London with the North, means that he will go into the Tories’ conference in Manchester with the fate of the Birmingham-to-Manchester stretch in question. In November 2020, Sunak told a journalist that he wanted to “take Johnson’s credit card away.” Now he is taking the nation’s credit card away, seemingly regardless of the short-term political costs and, as his critics would have it, of the long-term costs to the country’s competitiveness.
In his maiden speech in parliament, he argued that public spending should never exceed 37 per cent of gross domestic product. The aim of sound economic policy, he believes, is to lighten the burden of government so that “wealth creators can flourish.” This aim was repeatedly frustrated by Johnson, Covid and the economic repercussions of Trussism. But he is now in a better position to return to his core philosophy. If Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto was all about fighting injustices, and Johnson’s in 2019 about getting Brexit done and levelling up, Sunak’s will return to Thatcherite themes about unleashing entrepreneurialism.
Sunak is also an instinctive social conservative. He’s not only a stark contrast with Johnson, who has nine children by several women. He’s a stark contrast to Cameron’s generation Tories, who felt a need to publicise their bohemian values. He has no qualms about stating that a woman is “an adult human female” and used his power as British premier to block the Scottish National Party’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, legislation which would have given anyone in Scotland over the age of 16 the ability to change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis.
A good clue to his views is a A Portrait of Modern Britain, a pamphlet he wrote for Policy Exchange in 2014, before he was elected to parliament, in which he lauded his own community, British Indians, for their commitment to family, education, hard-work, upward-mobility and home ownership. The implication is that what worked for an ethnic group that, for the most part, arrived in the country with little should work for the rest of the country as well.
Letting Rishi be Rishi is a higher-risk strategy than you might think given how straightforward his views are. His doubts about HS2 have infuriated many British grandees, including grandees in his own party, such as George Osborne. Expressing socially conservative views can infuriate the social liberals who aren’t so much over-represented in the media as utterly dominant. But given that the Labour Party has been ahead in the polls by double digits since Sunak took office, the Tory Party has no choice but to roll the dice and let Rishi be Rishi.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.