The rise and rise of Rishi Sunak

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Has anyone in politics had a year like Rishi Sunak?

Back in February 2020 he was a little-known minister in the U.K. Treasury, with no Cabinet experience under his belt.

Fast-forward six weeks and his boss, Chancellor Sajid Javid, had resigned, following an angry dispute with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his then chief aide Dominic Cummings — and Sunak found himself propelled into the top finance minister post.

Three weeks later he was unveiling his first — hastily-written — budget; and two weeks after that, he was announcing the biggest state intervention in the British economy in decades, as the coronavirus pandemic plunged the U.K. into lockdown. He was still a few weeks short of his 40th birthday.

“Everyone was working, as you would imagine, 18 hours a day or whatever it was, so it’s very hard work and it was enormously stressful,” Sunak tells this week’s episode of POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast. “We were about to do some quite extraordinary things. Every three days, we were figuring out something new to do, to address the situation.”

“I didn’t really have the time to be reflective about that — it was happening in real time. I was barely at home. I barely saw my wife and kids for that period.”

Sunak’s generous interventions, spending tens of billions of pounds to subsidise wages and prop up shuttered businesses during lockdown, proved wildly popular with the public, and he now finds himself as the frontrunner to succeed Johnson as Britain’s next prime minister.

The careful nurturing of his image — through slickly-produced videos and social media images featuring his signature — has raised eyebrows in Westminster, but proved successful in further building ‘Brand Rishi.’

“If you’re a modern politician, I think it’s incumbent on you to communicate with people in the way that they want to get their news and information,” he said. “And that probably comes a little bit from my time in the States” — he lived in California in his early 20s — “just observing how politics is done there, how people approach communication, the use of different media channels.”

But Sunak’s judgement is now being called into question over his controversial Eat Out to Help Out restaurant subsidy scheme last summer, which encouraged people back into indoor venues before a vaccine had been developed. It has also been reported that his was the main voice within government urging Johnson to resist a second lockdown as virus cases surged back. Johnson initially resisted scientific advice, keeping the U.K. economy open — before eventually locking down in November. Some experts say thousands more lives were lost as a result.

But Sunak offers a fierce defense of his role — insisting there must be voices championing the economy around the Cabinet table. And he is keen to highlight the downside risks of each lockdown.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t give the prime minister what I thought the impact any decision would have on the economy,” he said. “In the same way that Gavin [Williamson, the education secretary] would be right to tell the prime minister the impact any lockdowns would have on children’s educational attainment, and what that means for their future.”

“And even when we’re considering the health impact, it’s not just coronavirus health impacts that we should be cognisant of. We should also think about the non-coronavirus health impacts, whether that’s mental health, whether that’s people not getting treatment they need, or whether it’s the delayed backlog that is accruing, or indeed the chronic ill health outcomes that come from unemployment — of which there is plenty of evidence as well. So it’s right that the prime minister hears all of those points of view. And the people who are responsible for those various things aren’t doing their jobs properly, and Cabinet government is not working, if he’s not hearing all those points of view,” he added.

Looking to the future, Sunak said some of the profound societal changes the pandemic has brought about — such as increased online shopping and working from home — are here to stay and will likely require a government response.

“The working from home thing is obviously the big unknown,” he says. “What does the new normal look like? Like the PM, I think both of us are in the camp of believing that people being physically together in workplaces is a good and positive thing. I think the spontaneity that comes from that, the camaraderie, the team-building, is all really important … Is it going to come back in exactly the same way? Probably not.”

“Even small changes have quite big implications, whether it’s for the economics of commuter rail, or a coffee shop that’s used to servicing commuters,” he said. “If people work one day a week on average at home, and everyone does that, that’s 20 percent less commuting traffic — that’s not a small impact.”

In a wide-ranging interview Sunak also talked about spending lockdown with his young family, his lifelong love of computer games and his famous addiction to sugar. And he opened up about the importance of his Hindu faith, revealing he left a small statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh to watch over Johnson while he fought coronavirus in Downing Street last year.

“Lord Ganesh is still on my desk in No. 11 (Downing Street),” Sunak said. “My wife was insistent we left it in there … when the PM was sick. He used my office in No.11, because he lives above and it was easy for him to have this walled-off area where he could come up and down. And so he was using my office in No. 11, and I took all my stuff out — but Akshata was insistent we left that there for him, to keep an eye on him as well.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Financial Services. From the eurozone, banking union, CMU, and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Financial Services policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.



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