By Arj Singh
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His “whatever it takes” press conference in which he announced a £330bn plan to help businesses through the coronavirus lockdown helped reassure an increasingly nervous public and left even some of his political opponents asking if he could be the next prime minister.
Sunak had only been chancellor for a month before being thrown head first into the biggest peacetime crisis in a century.
The press conference in question was also Sunak’s first: he is said to have been nervous about media appearances ever since being elevated to the cabinet last summer.
The speed of his response and assuredness of his performance was unsurprising to MPs, officials and insiders, some of who see him “hyper intelligent” and even the “top brain in parliament”.
But to his critics, Sunak is simply a “technocrat” carrying out “Treasury crisis 101” – an MP with fewer than five years’ experience who simply has not had time to make errors or enemies. His predecessor Sajid Javid went so far as to say in February that “no self-respecting minister” would have taken the job of chancellor after Boris Johnson cut all the Treasury’s advisers.
So who is the man many are tipping to one day be prime minister?
‘He’s not a nerd’
Since the pandemic took hold in the UK, Sunak has worked solid 17-hour days, including some weekends.
He has not even been back to his Richmond constituency in North Yorkshire to see his wife Akshata Murthy, the daughter of one of India’s richest men, or his two children.
The £350bn support package, which would normally have taken months to devise due to its scale and intricacy, was put together in a matter of days, and Sunak’s final statement was still being printed moments before he left the Treasury to announce it at the press conference.
But one insider told HuffPost UK that taking questions from some of the nation’s top journalists was not a problem for a details-focused chancellor who always “takes the long brief instead of the short one”.
“He understands things very quickly,” Thirsk and Malton MP, and Sunak’s good friend, Kevin Hollinrake says. “He’s very analytical and doesn’t mind getting into the detail.
“He will spend hours reading something.
“He is hyper intelligent and doesn’t get bored easily – he seeks to understand.”
Robert Goodwill, who tipped Sunak as a future PM more than two years ago, agrees: “If anybody is going to be thrown in the deep end and swim, it’s Rishi.”
Just don’t call him a nerd.
Hollinrake goes on: “He’s not nerdish at all.
“I said to him one day: ‘I’ve got to take my kids to watch Justin Bieber this weekend. I can’t think of anything bloody worse.’
“He said: ‘Justin Bieber? He’s absolutely brilliant.’
“He started singing ′my mama don’t like you…’!
“He’s into films, he likes Star Wars, he’s into music, he’s good fun, he’s a laugh, he likes going out – he doesn’t drink, but he’s really good company.”
Rarely for a politician, the clean-cut chancellor also wears his big brain lightly.
“He seems to combine being very, very able with very, very pleasant and self-effacing and not arrogant,” says Goodwill.
Officials, meanwhile, praise Sunak’s kindness during these gruelling days.
“He is fiercely hardworking and bright, but he’s also kind and empathetic,” says a source close to the chancellor.
“Treasury officials are working at such speed in these unprecedented circumstances and the chancellor never forgets to thank them.”
Another Whitehall official describes the chancellor as a “good listener – someone that takes time to take other people’s opinions on board”.
“It gives a lot of confidence knowing the person making decisions is as knowledgeable as he is,” they add.
One senior Tory MP who has been less close to Sunak during his meteoric rise also notes that he is “essentially a nice guy” who has “always been well liked”.
But noting their own cynicism, they add: “If you add to that the fact that he hasn’t been around for that long, I think very few people have had any time to work up a reason not to like him or hold a grudge against him.”
Another MP from a similar Tory generation says he “instinctively likes Rishi” but wonders how he will fare in “peacetime” having flown under the radar all the way to the top of the Treasury.
They describe Sunak as “fundamentally a technocrat” who Boris Johnson favoured because he was not a political threat.
“Being a technocrat has obvious advantages – at a time of crisis, people just go: ‘That’s somebody not trying to make political capital, just a nice person trying to do a good job.’ At times of crisis, that really helps you.
“At peacetime, I think it can mean running into trouble.
“I have watched very carefully what the Treasury has done on the self employed and other things, I think that they have succumbed to ‘Treasury orthodoxy 101′.
“They haven’t done anything that the Treasury wouldn’t do.
“It tells me you are dealing with a technocrat – and he never spends any time in parliament, never spends time with colleagues.”
Javid said at the time of his resignation in February that “no self-respecting minister” would have accepted the terms demanded by the PM: that the chancellor give up all the Treasury’s special advisers and instead share a central team with No.10
A source close to the chancellor insists the Treasury still “has its independence” under Sunak. But sure enough, some feel Sunak is a man who has done well precisely because he doesn’t make that kind of political fuss and isn’t a threat.
The more junior MP said: “I fundamentally think Rishi is a technocrat and that is why the Boris team were always comfortable with him.
“Because if you were really political they would never have been comfortable with him.
“The reason why he’s chancellor is because he backed Boris, they fell out with Saj, and then they had to have him.
“But imagine a world where Saj had accepted it, Rishi would be chief secretary today.
“So it’s important not to over-interpret.”
Yet Sunak’s allies point to his support for Brexit and passionate backing against Treasury orthodoxy of freeports – a type of port where standard tax and customs laws don’t apply, meant to encourage economic growth in a particular place – as evidence that he is not simply following orders.”
“Rishi is very focused on the economy, marketplaces, market forces and the benefits of free markets – and he thinks the European Union has no part to play,” Hollinrake says.
Some insiders describe Sunak as a libertarian and a deficit hawk who will have found it “difficult” to impose massive state intervention to keep the economy on life support.
Hollinrake adds: “I think if this had been a normal recession he’d probably have been a lot less interventionist than other chancellors would have been.
“I think he’d have thought [businesses failing] is a natural thing that happens in recessions.
“I argued this out with him very early on, that this is something really unusual, and I think he got that straight away.”
Ultimately, the early praise for Sunak will fade away if his promise to do “whatever it takes” does not turn into proper action.
“He and the government got a lot of kudos for a swift response,” says the senior Tory.
“But what most MPs have been busy with over the last couple of weeks has been a steady flow of people saying: ‘It’s great we’ve got this package of support, but it doesn’t appear to work for me or my business.’
“So I think there will be some form of general view at the end of this which will either be: ‘Due to the swift and bold action of the chancellor the economic damage of this crisis is much less than would have been the case,’ or it will be: ‘In spite of the early promise of great largesse the actual experience of large numbers of businesses was that relief came too late or they were excluded for whatever reason.’
“That remains to be seen.”
A hard act to follow
Sunak has battled against the odds since the beginning of his political career.
Pitching up to the candidate selection in William Hague’s former safe seat as the privately educated hedge funder son of an Indian doctor and pharmacist, Hollinrake gave him little chance.
But he beat two “good local candidates” with more than 50% of the vote in the first round.
“I know lots of people who went to that meeting thinking: ‘We’re not going to end up picking an Asian chap. We want William Hague, a Yorkshire lad.’
“And it shows how good he is that he just completely stole the show.”
Southampton-born Sunak then embarked on a charm offensive, visiting farms and milking cows, as he sought to win over the constituency,
“It raised a few eyebrows,” says Hollinrake.
“I know a lot of people up there who were ‘not sure about this’ – and then he won them over really quickly.”
Quick Budget prep break making tea for the team. Nothing like a good Yorkshire brew. pic.twitter.com/zhoQM9Ksho
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) February 21, 2020
Sunak was immediately ambitious after his election in 2015, privately expressing annoyance to a minister that he was not handed a parliamentary private secretary role in David Cameron’s first reshuffle after winning a majority.
“He was a bit upset about that,” says Hollinrake.
“I think he took it a bit personally – we talked about it.
“He was always ambitious, lots of people are, but he was never nakedly ambitious.
“He wasn’t churlish about it, he wasn’t childish about it, he was honest about it.”
Nevertheless, Sunak “kept his nose to the grindstone” and was eventually promoted to local government minister by Theresa May in 2018.
Labour veteran and Commons local government committee chair Clive Betts described his first appearance in front of the MPs as “the most impressive performance on his first time out they had seen of any minister”, according to Hollinrake.
Sunak did not join fellow Leavers in quitting the government in protest at May’s derided Brexit deal, which allies put down to his pragmatism.
And when she was toppled, he was an early and influential backer of Johnson for the leadership, and was rewarded with a promotion to chief secretary to the Treasury.
He presided over a spending review that boosted Whitehall budgets by £13bn, whittled down from £55bn-worth of bids, and was regularly sent in to bat on the airwaves for a government gripped by the Brexit chaos of 2019.
Ultimately, the prime minister came to trust him so much that he was ordered to stand in for him during debates in the winter election.
May saw his ascent to chancellor as inevitable by the time Javid quit in February’s reshuffle. Weeks later, Sunak was delivering what was effectively an emergency Budget.
“In the natural run of events a very swift rise, as he’s had, will probably provoke some jealousy in some quarters,” the senior Tory notes.
“But I think generally at the moment people have been very impressed by how he’s carried it off.”
Goodwill retorts: “These will be the same colleagues who are always complaining about the civil service and dead man’s shoes.
“We should definitely promote on ability and Rishi has got there by ability, not by any other means.”
And Hollinrake adds: “He doesn’t need to show off – he’s not one of these flashy people who tries to win friends by saying the right things to the right people.
“He doesn’t go glad-handing around the tea room,” he said, referring to the bustling Commons cafe where MPs socialise, share gossip and forge friendships and pacts.
A future PM?
For the young Tory MP, who sees Sunak as a technocrat, his refusal to play the Westminster game may stop him from becoming PM.
“You advantage in politics is often your disadvantage – so if the advantage is that you’re not around the tea room and all the rest of it, that’s fine, but when things go awry politically nobody tells you.
“Ask Philip Hammond – he’ll tell you all about it.
“It’s a disadvantage if you are trying to understand the real political impact of what you are trying to achieve or become prime minister.”
The MP uses the example of Gordon Brown, who spent years brooding in the shadow of Tony Blair before he eventually got the top job.
Brown was “not a tea room glad-hander” but had an operation that meant he “knew what everybody was up to”.
“What you’ve got with Rishi is someone who doesn’t have an operation because he was plucked to become chancellor.
“For Sajid to become chancellor he has had to go through all these different jobs – build up support, running for leader.
“You do this over a period of years and that’s how you become chancellor.
“Rishi has been plucked from nowhere and so doesn’t have that and now to acquire that it’s quite hard.”
The senior Tory wonders whether Sunak’s rise may be a flash in the pan.
“There is not a power base but certainly lots of people having suddenly seen him are saying: ‘Wow, the next prime minister,’” the MP says.
“But we can think of lots of people they have said that about.
“We can all remember Cleggmania, and the public and parliamentary colleagues can be fickle.”
But while he may not have the party, he is certainly winning over admirers in public – topping opinion polls and seeing the nickname “Dishy Rishi” going Twitter mainstream after he was pictured apparently working from home in a grey hoodie, in a post officials insist was not at all staged.
— Rishi Sunak #StayHomeSaveLives (@RishiSunak) March 27, 2020
In any case, Sunak may have to wait, with Johnson clearly eyeing up a decade in office despite his dangerous brush with Covid-19.
And in the meantime many Tory MPs will be looking to Sunak to articulate their fears about the economy collapsing in the huge upcoming cabinet debate about when to lift the lockdown.
“I’m sure people are and I know I am,” the junior MP says.
“I think, bloody hell, if he’s not doing it then we’re screwed, basically.”
Given his rapid rise, is he strong enough?
His senior colleague says only: “I just don’t know – it will be a key test.”