Rishi Sunak seems destined to be an assassin. The Chancellor’s weapon is pointed, polished contrast. Where Boris is shambolic, Rishi is spruce. Boris looks necrotic, Rishi simply gleams. We know Boris is a rake; Rishi is fanatically uxorious. Boris is all appetites: embarrassingly lardy. But Rishi is all discipline, Peloton-ed every morning.
Then contrast with Parliament. In a political environment where wolfish libertinism still howls, we respect this teetotaller, this dignified religious conservative. In a party of culture warriors, we are calmed by his refusal to join the fracas for easy Telegraph headlines. And in a Commons jammed with fumbling innumerates, we are gratefully relieved that a true numbers guy holds the national purse.
Solely by standing near them in photographs, Sunak makes his boss and his colleagues look, to varying degrees, stupid, crass, cadaverous, and morally dubious. Is all this calculated? Perhaps at first these contrasts were an accident of juxtaposition. Now they look like the willed creation of many hands.
A decade before today’s budget, Sunak was just another bored, wealthy, socially ambitious banker, most notable for marrying very well to a woman who is richer than the Queen. Today he is the most popular politician in the country. The press amplifies these common feelings. From Left to Right Sunak is imaginatively described as “genial”, “genial”, “genial”, and “nice”. In Lord Ashcroft’s sunny, flaccid Sunak biography, our protagonist is a schoolboy who never received detentions, a hedge fund partner who never screwed anyone over (or even made a bad bet), and a politician without enemies. How is that possible?
Sunak benefits from the hatred the press feels for Boris Johnson. Journalists direct their ire at the personality most gratingly reminiscent of their own, not the financier who thinks in excel spreadsheets, rather than headlines. The median pundit does not really know too much about spreadsheets, or what to do with Sunak, so they call him “genial” instead. As a result, the Chancellor is the recipient of puff pieces rather than asperities. Even the London Review of Books ends up defending him from clumsy Labour Party attacks, on racial grounds.
But Sunak also lacks obvious wounds for journalists to poke around in. Great wealth smoothed out any neuroticisms he had. They have nothing to claw at — for what is “genial” if not a synonym for boring? He is clam-tight, physically and mentally compact; he gives so little away. The only genuine insecurity would seem to be his height (a pocketable 5’ 7”); hence the suits carefully tailored to elongate and broaden him, and the choreographed posts on his Instagram where he stands tall, and the persistent rumours that Team Rishi genially emails social media users to delete comments that draw attention to any of this. What are his views on crime? On prisons? On education? We don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t either. In interviews he ducks behind bromides (“Being a parent is… hard”; Being in an office as a young banker was “really beneficial to me”) and references to popular culture. When the inevitable leadership question is raised he goes all chummy, all village fête, and says Oh Golly, Oh Gosh! Rhetoric that makes Johnson’s 2013 blather of balls and scrums sound comparatively Churchillian.
Race, potentially so explosive, is not really part of the conversation around the Chancellor. But the ghostly embarrassments, triumphs, and crimes of the Empire in both the subcontinent and Africa are bound up in his family story. Generations of dislocation and exile — with all their potential traumas — are repackaged, in Ashcroft’s book at least, into a saga of strivers and self-starters who walked in the Raj so Rishi could run in Westminster.
One early foray into politics, leading a Policy Exchange unit researching ethnic minority attitudes, was technically about race. The resulting report was thoughtful enough, though it reveals the ambition of an apparatchik more interested in the present and the future than the past. If Sunak’s research had a message for Conservatives, it was to emphasise a civic British identity that ethnic minority groups already felt comfortable with. (The party had been doing this since at least 1983.) In 2015, he laughed off the antique chit-chat of Wensleydale farmers who fretted about his “tan” when he was parachuted into William Hague’s old constituency of Richmond, North Yorks. The overall impression is of a man who has given approximately ten seconds of thought to questions of personal identity. And this in an era when identity is the inexhaustible social, political, and personal question among the over-educated. Sunak, comfortably warming his hands above the culture war inferno, will seem like a relief from it when he becomes Prime Minister.
If Sunak were born ten years later, he may have been more agitated by these questions. As an elder millennial (b.1980), he moved into industry when ideological agonies appeared to belong to the past. Goldman, followed by Stanford, followed by hedge funds. In the noughties, Sunak was another footsoldier of the Davos consensus. Why weep over Frantz Fanon in the library when there is money to be made? Why be outraged and indignant when you can be charming and suave? That was the way the brightest and the best of Sunak’s generation saw things, as they rolled into financial services en masse, pre-Crash.
Aspiration, not victimhood, is what Sunak claims to have learned from his family. It was his grandmother who sold her wedding jewellery to come to Britain in the Sixties. It was by the tills in his mother’s pharmacy that he learned about National Insurance and VAT. It was his parents who economised enough to send him to storied Winchester College. There, in 1997 — the apotheosis of social democratic rebelliousness in modern Britain — Sunak was a teenage Tory lamenting Tony Blair’s landslide in the pages of the school magazine. And what irritated the young Sunak more than anything else about New Labour were its plans to enter the United Kingdom into an “eventual European Superstate.” Not only a teenage Tory; a committed teenage Eurosceptic too. Was there a smaller minority of feeling in 1997? It’s unlikely.
Here is the ideological core of Sunak. He was, is, and always will be a “people must look after themselves first” Thatcherite. A believer in common sense, not theory. Hard work, achievement, tax cuts. William Hague might describe him as a “modern non-ideological conservative”, but the modern party speaks the language of intervention; many of its new voters are suspicious of globalisation and the City. So Sunak is old fashioned. It was Nigel Lawson who he consulted first when he became Chancellor. And it is a portrait of Nigel Lawson that hangs behind Sunak’s desk in No.11.
Here is the great irony of the Chancellor’s career to date. The Thatcherite who spewed £192bn on the public during the pandemic. He has the calculator-gambler soul of an axe man, and ends up with a public image close to Marcus Rashford’s. Scrooge is mistaken for Father Christmas. All the imagery — there is Rishi for the nerds, a Rishi for the boozers, a Rishi for the horny journalists, and a Rishi for the bumpkins — has been adroitly manipulated by his advisor and social media guru ‘Cass’ Horowitz. The Chancellor wouldn’t hurt a fly — unless it were relying on Universal Credit.
His horizon appears gorgeously cloudless. The joint No. 10-Treasury economic unit set up by Dominic Cummings to shackle the Chancellor in 2020 is now entirely at his command. His team expands all the time. The genuine Eurosceptic never bloodied his hands during the Theresa May years. He winked at lockdown sceptic MPs, flattering them without ever giving them public backing. Sunak has won several battles now without fighting. “Ascendancy” is the word used to describe No.11’s relationship with the Johnson team. It is easy to imagine him saying one day, as George Osborne did to friends after Cameron became leader in 2005, “I can’t believe how easily we have taken over the party.”
Today’s budget will disguise his instincts. His Thatcherism would go further, quicker, were he ever in charge. Tory donors would be delighted by it. Her Manchester liberalism was pliable, part-entertainment. His looks creedal, and well-practised from his years in business. Public opinion spurned her. It salutes Rishi. He is The Man Who Invented Furlough, The Eat Out to Help Out Bloke. £192bn disarms complaints present and future.