Rishi Sunak Isn’t the Leader Britain’s Tories Need — but He’s the One They Deserve

Britain’s current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, exemplifies a political class whose members are hermetically sealed off from the realities of everyday life. Sunak is the latest much-hyped figure to make the journey from hero to zero — but he won’t be the last.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak looks on as he speaks to the media on December 19, 2022. (Henry Nicholls / Getty Images)

When Rishi Sunak became the leader of the Conservative Party last October, he was the fifth Tory leader since Sunak himself entered Westminster for the first time in 2015. During the last Conservative stint in government, there were just two party leaders in the whole period between 1979 and 1997, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

As this record of turbulence at the top would suggest, the past few years have been something of a rollercoaster ride for the Conservatives. In 2015, David Cameron secured the party its first Westminster majority since 1992, but he had to resign as prime minister barely twelve months later after a reckless gamble on the Brexit referendum of June 2016 backfired disastrously.

Cameron’s successor Theresa May was hoping to ride the Brexit tiger to a landslide victory in a snap election the following year but ended up losing the majority she had inherited. As May sought fruitlessly to negotiate a Brexit deal that could satisfy the different factions at Westminster, it seemed as if the crisis might cause irreparable harm to her party.

Yet just a few months after the Tory vote slumped to 9 percent in the European Parliament election of 2019, a new leader, Boris Johnson, led his party to a spectacular triumph. For much of 2021, Johnson had the edge over Keir Starmer’s Labour opposition in the polls and the Tories were confident of winning a fifth election in a row.

Since then, however, the party has suffered a calamitous meltdown, with the worst of the damage concentrated in a period of less than two months with Liz Truss at the helm. So far, Sunak has proved unable to dig himself out of this hole or claw back the double-digit lead for Labour. Has the party that shaped and reshaped modern Britain finally hit the buffers?

A Broken Record

Reading Michael Ashcroft’s ingratiating biography of Sunak, Going for Broke, two years after it was first published is like revisiting the delusional expectations of a parent long after their child has emerged as a crumpled professional disappointment. Ashcroft, an influential Conservative Party donor and self-styled polling guru, wants us to believe that Sunak is a uniquely gifted leader, a natural political savant who matches “principles with pragmatism” in a way that “gets things done.”

To that end, Ashcroft crams his profile with superlatives. Sunak’s “intelligence and charm” won him the honor of being “head boy” at Winchester, an elite private school in Hampshire. His “outstanding academic record” at Oxford University and “bright, engaging manner” made him a prime candidate for the Goldman Sachs trainee scheme.

With their “outgoing personalities and good looks,” we are told, Sunak and his future wife Akshata Murty “quickly became a power couple at Stanford University.” Sunak’s “characteristic professionalism” then helped secure his first ministerial post in Theresa May’s short-lived post-Brexit government.

The problem Going for Broke faces now, however, is that Sunak’s early political reputation — first as a slick Treasury insider, and then as Britain’s ultracompetent COVID chancellor — bears little resemblance to the stuttering, indecisive, gaffe-prone prime minister he has since become. Worse yet for Ashcroft, some senior Tories are beginning to notice the difference.

He’s like “Ed Miliband with Prada shoes,” one party source remarked after Sunak was caught on camera over the Christmas break asking a homeless man if he planned to “get into” investment banking. “The man replied dryly that he’d ‘just like to get through Christmas first,’” POLITICO Europe reported.

Frictionless Ascent

Going for Broke does get one thing right: Sunak’s ascendancy, both in life and in politics, has been frictionless. He was born in Southampton in 1980. His parents — one a GP, the other a pharmacist — were affluent first-generation immigrants. After preparatory school and boarding at Winchester (fees per semester: £15,000), Sunak studied philosophy, politics, and economics — the degree of choice for aspiring British rulers — at Lincoln College, Oxford.

From Oxford, he joined Goldman Sachs. From Goldman Sachs, he moved to California. In California, he completed an MBA in business studies at Stanford and met Akshata, the daughter of an Indian tech billionaire.

Sunak joined the Conservative Party sometime in the 2010s and returned to Britain in 2014. Between 2013 and 2015, he ran Catamaran Ventures, an investment firm owned by his father-in-law. In 2015, he was parachuted into the safe Tory seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire, a constituency to which he had no prior personal or political ties.

Once in parliament, Sunak was singled out by the Tory hierarchy for a series of rapid promotions. By 2018, he was undersecretary of state for local government. By 2019, he was chief secretary to the Treasury — effectively, Britain’s deputy finance minister.

In February 2020, Boris Johnson made Sunak chancellor of the Exchequer after Sajid Javid, Sunak’s predecessor in the role, chafed against the constraints Johnson had tried to impose on him. Sunak, apparently, raised no such objections.

Moving up the Ladder

In Ashcroft’s telling of events, Sunak’s trajectory has been aspirationally middle-class. When Sunak returned home from Winchester during the summer months, he worked in his mother’s “fledgling [pharmacy] business,” an experience that helped foster a “growing awareness” of the impact National Insurance and VAT rates had on company profits. As a teenager at Oxford, Sunak joined the university’s Credit Suisse and Merrill Lynch–sponsored investment society, at which attendees would “role-play exercises designed to give students a flavor of life” in the financial industry. “Sunak loved it,” Ashcroft writes.

Ashcroft presents these details as if they were typical of the British petty bourgeoisie in the 1990s and early 2000s. For instance, he doesn’t think it’s strange that Sunak’s starting salary at Goldman Sachs was £60,000 per year — more than twice the annual take-home pay of the average British worker — nor that his immediate postgraduate income could be supplemented by a “performance-related bonus ranging from 50 percent to 300 percent of base.”

Instead, he sees Sunak’s relative success at the bank as yet more evidence of his subject’s innate talent and precocity. By the time Sunak left Goldman Sachs in 2004, at the height of the firm’s subprime mortgage binge, “he was impatient to move up the ladder faster than Goldman’s hierarchical structure would allow,” Ashcroft writes. But then, Sunak’s employers had “always known that he was fiercely ambitious.”

Going for Broke continues in this vein for three hundred pages. Sunak is variously described as “ferociously bright,” “smart and suave and presentable,” “fantastic, a switched-on cookie,” and “straight and capable.” Ashcroft doesn’t dwell on Sunak’s time in the United States nor on the details of his marriage, although he does dedicate a few paragraphs to the failure of Akshata’s clothing line, “Akshata,” in 2012, a misguided business venture that not even her vast personal fortune, thought to be in the region of $500 million, could salvage. He notes, too, that while in California the couple purchased a Santa Monica penthouse worth $7.2 million.

The bulk of the book focuses on Sunak’s rise through the ranks of the Tory Party from 2014 onward. Here, again, the self-referential power of the British class system kicks into gear. According to Ashcroft, upon his return from the United States, Sunak knew “only one” person in British politics: James Forsyth, the “brilliantly connected” political editor of the Spectator. Forsyth promptly “made it his business to set [Sunak] on the path to becoming an MP,” including by introducing him to an array of high-ranking Tory aides and fixers.

Inevitably, Sunak and Forsyth met at Winchester. Forsyth is married to the journalist Allegra Stratton. Stratton served as Boris Johnson’s Downing Street press officer between November 2020 and April 2021. Sunak was best man at Forsyth and Stratton’s wedding in 2011.

In December 2022, Forsyth departed the Spectator to work as Sunak’s political secretary, effectively replacing his wife by a matter of months as a senior prime ministerial aide. Stratton, meanwhile, left office in disgrace having been caught on camera joking about illegal Downing Street lockdown parties. The scandal indirectly led to Johnson’s downfall and Sunak’s ascent.

Caught in the Headlights

Ashcroft’s narrative ends in the autumn of 2020, as Chancellor Sunak is grappling with the chaos of coronavirus. Sunak, Ashcroft approvingly notes, was one of the leading opponents of lockdown in the Johnson cabinet and began lobbying against social distancing restrictions as early as April 2020, when Britain was losing more than five thousand people per week to the disease.

He was also exclusively responsible for the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, a disastrous Treasury initiative that sought to tempt diners back into restaurants by publicly subsidizing their meals, but which was later blamed by researchers at Warwick University for boosting British infection rates by up to 17 percent. According to a “well-placed Treasury figure,” the scheme was “absolutely” Sunak’s idea: “He wanted to do it through Visa, but there simply weren’t enough cards.”

Since then, the air of political invulnerability attached to Sunak — based largely on his introduction of the UK’s COVID furlough program — has vanished. The longer Sunak spends in the public spotlight, the more flat-footed he becomes. First there were questions about his family’s offshore tax arrangements. He went on to boast about “changing the funding formulas” to shift public investment away from “deprived urban areas” and into wealthy suburban ones.

Sunak then admitted that he was registered with a private GP. Subsequently there has been a stream of jarring social faux pas. He once told a pair of bemused high-school students that he was a “total Coke addict.” He doesn’t know how to use contactless payment cards. He seems to think Darlington is in Scotland.

These are not ordinary political blunders. They are the blunders of a politician hermetically removed from the realities of everyday life. Sunak’s route to the premiership is yet another symptom of his detachment.

When he first ran for the Tory leadership against Liz Truss in the summer of 2022, he was overwhelmingly rejected by the party’s membership. (Truss won 57 percent of votes cast, Sunak 38 percent.) When he ran a second time, following the implosion of the Truss government, he was appointed by the party’s MPs without consulting the members. In other words, Sunak is in charge because a small slice of Tory lawmakers want him to be.

He has never won a general election. He barely has a mandate from his own base. And now, right-wing enthusiasm for him is beginning to ebb. A bad set of results at the local elections in May, coupled with the looming prospect of a revivified party led by Nigel Farage, could trigger a fresh round of internal Tory bloodletting, one former cabinet minister told the Guardian recently. “It really is the calm before the storm at the moment,” they said.

A First-Rate Groveller

In office, Sunak has behaved like a conventional neoliberal technocrat, slashing regulations on the City of London, lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses, going to war with unions over public sector pay, and generally striving to restore market discipline in the wake of his predecessor’s chaotic fiscal policies. But he has done so with a stunning lack of strategic guile.

As the cost-of-living crisis intensified at the end of last year, Sunak rolled back a slate of social provisions aimed at shielding working-class families from rising energy costs and runaway inflation. The result: Labour consolidated its twenty-point poll lead and Sunak’s approval ratings halved in the space of four months.

Compounding Sunak’s chaotic tenure in Downing Street has been a deepening winter crisis in the National Health Service, a surge of strikes and industrial disputes, and the visible weakening of Britain’s broader public-service infrastructure, the resilience of which has been systematically diminished by fourteen years of Tory rule.

Given his limitations, how has Sunak managed to thrive in the otherwise cutthroat world of Conservative politics? Ashcroft inadvertently furnishes us with an answer. When May became prime minister after the Brexit vote in 2016, he writes, Sunak wrote an obsequious article about her for his local constituency press. The article lauded the former home secretary’s “mastery of detail” and “vision for the country.” Sunak supported Brexit; May did not.

Likewise, Johnson appointed Sunak as chancellor because Sunak was willing to work under a team of advisers directly imposed on the Treasury by Downing Street. No “self-respecting minister” would accept such a demand, Javid later said. “I was left with no option other than to resign.”

Groveling conformity is of course a prerequisite for access to the upper echelons of British power. According to Going for Broke, it is one of Sunak’s major virtues, as well. “The qualities that have propelled him are evident,” Ashcroft concludes, with more than a hint of pseudopaternal pride:

Clever and talented, eager to learn, always well-prepared. He takes nothing for granted, diligently doing the less glamorous parts of his job and working in his constituency as if it were a marginal.

Clearly, Sunak could have done something useful with these gifts. He ended up running the United Kingdom instead.