Britain’s future prime minister, economic Jedi, Maharajah of the Yorkshire Dales, Santa Claus in hazmat or Dishy Rishi — there’s been a deluge of monikers thrown in to describe 40-year-old Rishi Sunak.
And that’s not even taking into account his billionaire father-in-law and the founder of Indian IT behemoth Infosys, NR Narayanamurthy.
But the kitchen of a curry house near the Southampton docks is perhaps the last place you’d go looking for a budding Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the richest British lawmakers and now the man entrusted with 350 billion pounds of spending power to guide the UK out of the economic doldrums of Covid-19.
To transition from a loyalist of Number 10, Downing Street to occupying its hallowed rooms as the first British Prime Minister from an ethnic minority, Sunak will first have to save the UK from its worst recession in 300 years and prove that he really is Britain’s economic Jedi.
Yet, in the summer of 1998, there were many diners at Kuti’s Brasserie in Southampton who found a lanky 18-year-old waiting their tables with an affable smile and some ultra-courteous manners.
It was a job that served a dual purpose for the hard-working Sunak.
With the first semester of his Oxford degree on Philosophy, Politics and Economics beginning soon, he was able to earn some pocket money thanks to Kuti Miah — the eponymous restaurant owner who is also an old family friend.
And it also helped Sunak meet and mingle with a variety of people, a trait he picked up from his parents. “I grew up watching my parents serve our local community with dedication. My dad was an NHS family GP and my mum ran her own local chemist shop,” Sunak wrote on his website.
Emblematic of post-Brexit Britain
In many ways, Sunak is emblematic of post-Brexit multi-ethnic Britain: a millennial teetotaller born to Indian-origin middle class parents and armed with a Winchester-Oxford-Stanford pedigree, the second-youngest Chancellor of the Exchequer who takes his Parliament oaths by swearing on the Hindu sacred text of Bhagvad Gita (George Osborne, at 38, was the youngest — since you ask.)
“In terms of cultural upbringing, I’d be at the temple at the weekend — I’m a Hindu — but I’d also be at [Southampton Football Club] the Saints game as well on a Saturday. You do everything, you do both,” Sunak told the BBC in a recent interview.
But Sunak is also an outlier — a modern non-ideological Conservative, as his Tory constituency predecessor William Hague famously calls him.
Sunak’s parents Yashvir and Usha Sunak arrived in England in the 1960s from Kenya and Tanzania, where they were born. His grandparents were born in the Indian state of Punjab and emigrated from East Africa with their children to the UK in the 1960s. That is where Sunak’s parents met and married — and the family soon grew to include Sunak and his two siblings.
At the Oxford
The prestige of state school didn’t come easy for Sunak, as his parents had to make major financial sacrifices to afford his fees at Winchester (where five Chancellors of the Exchequer before him had also studied), and subsequently at Oxford University.
While his school friends remember him as a rather well-behaved head boy and a “reasonable cricketer,” his Oxford mates recall him as a nerd infatuated with Star Wars and Coca Cola.
Remarkably for someone whose meteoric rise in politics has been unprecedented, Sunak assiduously avoided political societies while in college, though his acquaintances vaguely remember him wanting to become a Conservative prime minister. “I don’t think anyone took that too seriously,” one of his tutors in Oxford told Tatler.
The roots of Sunak’s conservatism, however, can be traced back to the days of his youth. But much like his unique brand of fighting economic contagion (some fondly call it Rishinomics), his political beliefs are also intertwined with his personal ones — to the extent that he almost foresaw Brexit 20 years before it could happen.
While his college friends partied at the pub, Sunak stayed away from liquor due to his religious beliefs. The late 1990s in the UK was a ripe breeding ground for New Labour — and many pundits today compare Sunak’s boyish charm to the man who led Labour to a landslide in 1997: Tony Blair.
But the night Blair won, Sunak wrote this of the new Prime Minister in his school magazine: “He revels in the label of a patriot, but has plans for the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and membership of an eventual European Superstate.”
His Euroscepticism and position on Brexit were thus much more deep-seated and long-harboured than a vote of political convenience against David Cameron, and later in support of his boss — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But unlike many of his Conservative colleagues, Sunak’s experience as an MP also hardened him to the ground reality of British politics.
Tellingly for a lawmaker from an immigrant background, Sunak pinned his decision to vote for Leave in Brexit to immigration rules: “I believe that appropriate immigration can benefit our country, but we must have control of our borders.”
Before that, his selection as the Conservative candidate for a rural Yorkshire seat vacated by William Hague in 2014 caused shock waves — and Sunak joked that he and his wife made up the entire immigrant population of the white-dominated Richmond constituency.
But his hard campaigning and enthusiasm for cricket and Yorkshire tea ultimately won him enough supporters to sail through the 2015 elections.
Sunak’s journey since then has been extra-ordinary: in just three years he was appointed as chief secretary to the British Treasury, and in February this year, following Sajid Javid’s stormy resignation, Sunak became the Chancellor.
Even before he could cherish the moment, Sunak found himself presiding over a £350 billion package to boost a UK economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic — the largest ever fiscal stimulus recorded in peacetime.
Deploying the full weight of the Treasury into cushioning the economic blow of the pandemic, Sunak has vowed to preserve as many jobs as possible and pledged support for crippled sectors such as liberal arts, amid the largest decline in UK’s GDP for 300 years. But his record spending plans may not prevent the biggest spike in unemployment in more than three decades.
While the latest opinion poll gives Sunak an approval rating of 41%, compared to 2% for Boris Johnson, as one British lawmaker recently said: “There are those who hate him, as he’s now unfireable. There are many who don’t like the fact another power base is emerging.”
One of the abiding values that Sunak has lived by is loyalty. It’s this trait that prompted Sunak to arrange a reception for his wife Akshata’s billionaire parents at the good old Kuti’s Brasserie soon after their wedding.
It’s also the same trait that has always prompted a steadfast support for Johnson from Sunak — repaying the trust bestowed upon a rookie MP by the Prime Minister.
But to transition from a loyalist of Number 10, Downing Street to occupying its hallowed rooms as the first British Prime Minister from an ethnic minority, Sunak will first have to save the UK from its worst recession in 300 years and prove that he really is Britain’s economic Jedi.