Rishi Sunak, the British establishment’s version of progress
In December 2019, almost 14 million people voted for Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister of Britain. Last month, 140,000 Conservative members voted for Liz Truss to succeed him. And today, the support of 195 Tory MPs was enough to install Rishi Sunak in Downing Street.
Britain’s democracy is shrinking, and the result is Sunak – a politician who has no popular mandate but is incredibly wealthy and looks like a hooded fool. Let me make it clear how scared he can be: The 42-year-old once told two schoolboys he was a “total coke addictbefore clarifying, with a snort, that he was referring to Coca-Cola. He wears his designate slides with white socks. It has a $200 “smart mug” that heats itself. His victory speech revealed everything the charisma of an announcement recorded in a station. Every time I see him on TV, I feel an atavistic urge to give him a wedgie and steal his lunch money.
Sunak’s success is a direct result of Truss’ complete and utter failure. Only six weeks ago she beat him to the Tory leadership, but a parade of nightmarish decisions panicked bond markets and doomed his premiership. After this debacle, his group of injured moved to find a replacement, quickly. By insisting that any potential candidate must be nominated by 100 of their 356 colleagues, the Conservatives “men in gray suitsnarrowed the field and ensured that this new leadership race would favor known quantities.
Only three people had the potential to succeed. Sunak was the obvious choice, as he had attracted the most support from MPs in the last leadership election (before losing to Truss among rank-and-file conservatives). The second possibility was Penny Mordaunt, the supposed “unitary” candidate, who didn’t get enough nominations to stay in the running. And the third was Boris Johnson—yes, this Boris Johnson, haystack and grudge against monogamy, a man many of those same MPs had declared unfit for office just three months before. Johnson returned early from a vacation in the Caribbean, appearing to have slept in a hedgerow, and made a few phone calls. Then he pulled out of the race late last night, while insistent that he could have voted if he had wanted to. This left Sunak as the only candidate.
In a sense, Sunak’s success is a triumph for diversity: he is the first Briton of Indian descent to serve as prime minister and, as a Hindu, the first non-Christian. But it is also a victory for the establishment. Sunak attended Winchester College, a private boarding school that last produced a prime minister in 1801, and then Oxford, which produced five of the last six. “England was ruled by an aristocracy constantly recruited from among the upstarts,” wrote George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn, from the first half of the 20th century. “And given the energy that the self-made men possessed, and considering that they were buying their place in a class that had a tradition of public service anyway, one might have expected capable leaders can be produced in such a way.” Sunak may have been an underdog, but he hasn’t been for a long time.
I happened to direct what was probably Sunak’s first major political interview, in May 2014, just five months before being selected for the safe Conservative seat in Richmond, rural Yorkshire. Working for a think tank called Policy Exchange, he had come to the BBC to promote a report saying politicians should no longer lump all Britons of color together as ‘BAME’ – ‘Black and Minority Ethnicity’ – but should recognize each distinct community on its own terms. At the time, conservatives were failing to attract nonwhite voters whose attitudes and circumstances should have made them natural conservatives. They had littlevs conservative views, and if the party could ignore its associations with golf club racism, those voters might flock to it. “They are in no way in favor of mass immigration,” Sunak told me. “They distinguish between immigration that happened 50 or 60 years ago, when their grandparents or their parents came to this country, settled in, worked hard and what they see produce now, which in their perception is not the same.”
His analysis was correct: the Conservative Party is much less white today, while still being opposed to mass immigration. In Truss’ first cabinet, none of the four most important positions was held by a white man. The star of the last leadership election was Kemi Badenoch, who lived in Nigeria until he was 16.
Listening to this interview eight years later, what strikes me is that Sunak was describing the story of his own life. His parents followed a well-trodden postcolonial path from India to East Africa to Britain in the 1960s. pharmacist and her family physician father. The Sunaks gave their boy the best (or at least the most expensive) education possible. Aside from her ethnicity, everything about her later career screams establishment: boarding school, Oxford, Goldman Sachs, Stanford Business School, a hedge fund, then a think tank, then a political career. It is a reflection of Britain’s constant desire to fuse modernity and tradition.
In truth, Sunak’s racial heritage is less important to most Britons than one other fact about him: his wealth. He owns a mansion in west London; a house in Santa Monica, California; and a Georgian-era house in Yorkshire with a ornamental pond and one swimming pool. Although no one has the idea of a brash spendthrift, Sunak showed off his riches openly enough to attract a comment: suitable combinationsa Platoon exercise bike, that absurdly expensive self-heating mug. For those sensitive to the exquisite vibes of the British class system, that makes it “new currency”. By contrast, Boris Johnson – an Eton scholar who even asked a Tory donor to pay for the celebration barbecue at his third marriage – always presented himself as “old money”.
Sunak’s wife, fashion designer Akshata Murthy, is even richer. She is heiress to an Indian telecommunications fortune, and the revelation in April that she was a “non-dom– a foreign national who paid a £30,000 flat tax instead of millions of pounds in income tax on earnings outside Britain – nearly sank her husband’s political career. (To add to the Rishi Register of Cringe, legitimate media attention to his wife led Sunak declare that he sympathized with Will Smith’s defense of Jada Pinkett Smith. “At least I didn’t get up to slap anyone, which is good,” he added.) In the same month, it emerged that Sunak had staged a green card until October 2021, allowing him permanent residence in the United States. Questions about his commitment to live out the rest of his life in Britain have bubbled up across return channels and social media.
That tax controversies hampered his career more than overt racism seems like progress. The question now becomes: what is Sunak’s vision for Britain? He served as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the pandemic, and although he liked to brag about his desire to cut taxes, he kept raise them. And public finances are in an even worse state today than they were then. His warnings about Truss economic policies could have been prescient, but he now has to deal with their consequences. His victory speech pledged to continue Johnson and Truss’ support for Ukraine, and he’s a true blue Brexiteer who won’t ease the party’s skepticism of the European Union, but domestic issues are thornier . Does he believe that pensions and benefits for people of working age should rise in line with inflation, which reached 10.1% this month? Does he have any idea how to improve either Britain’s terrible productivity figures or his party’s terrible polls? The British people did not hear answers to any of these questions during the leadership race, during which Sunak gave no interviews. He didn’t need to – he could reach every constituent he needed simply by picking up the phone or walking down the hall from his parliamentary office.
In The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell was not praising the new class of rulers—the repaired upstarts—as superior to the old aristocrats. He thought both were hopeless: “One of the dominant facts of English life during the last three quarters of a century has been the decay of the ability of the ruling class.” Sunak, Britain’s third prime minister since early September, and the second without a voters mandate, will have a hard time proving Orwell wrong.