Rishi’s Bets

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By Molly Pollock

In the House of Commons Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused Labour leader Keir Starmer for failing, when Director of Public Prosecutions, to prosecute Jimmy Savile.

There was an outcry and cabinet ministers were immediately wheeled out around media studios in support of Johnson and his remark, with Dominic Raab and Michael Gove forefront. His Number 10 director of policy Munira Mirza tried unsuccessfully to persuade Johnson to apologise but to no effect, and she eventually gave up and tendered her resignation.

The other person who failed wholeheartedly to back his PM was Chancellor Rishi Sunak who when asked at a Downing Street press conference on his plans to tackle the cost of living crisis, responded: “Being honest, I wouldn’t have said it and I’m glad the prime minister has clarified what he meant.”

An honest and fairly innocuous remark most would have thought. But no. Many of his cabinet and Tory colleagues saw this as the previously loyal Sunak attacking Johnson. Sunak and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, have both been cited as replacements for Johnson when he eventually leaves Number 10, though this appears far from Johnson’s mind as despite his problems he is determined to cling on.

Why so concerned by one remark?

So Sunak is seen as a threat to Johnson and his supporters. But why are they so concerned by one remark that they are now accusing him of being on manoeuvres to oust the PM and replace him? Most politicians are ambitious and many will covetously eye the top post. But why is Sunak seen as so dangerous to the present incumbent?

Sunak”s parents, Yashvir and Usha, are both Hindu Punjabis though born in Kenya and Tanzania respectively. Their parents had migrated from India. Both families then swapped East Africa for Southampton where Rishi’s mother and father met. Rishi was educated at some of the best schools – not Eton but Winchester College, the fees for which are more than most people earn in a year, and where pupils are apparently taught to be leaders. Oxford followed after a summer of waiting tables at the brasserie of a friend of his parents. Although tight finances are the norm for most when children go off to university, Sunak’s parents were more comfortably off than most as his mother was a pharmacist and his father a GP in private practice according to Companies House. So comfortably off compared to many.

Sunak has been described by supporters as calm, organised and immaculately dressed. Empathy and compassion are not mentioned. Instead of emotions he lists policies. This lack of feeling is considered by some a product of boarding schools for boys where, to survive, personal emotions, and sympathy for others, need to be suppressed.

After Oxford where he is remembered as a Thatcherite, a Eurosceptic and president of the Oxford University Investment Society, Sunak worked for four years (2001-2004) for Goldman Sachs, leaving to do a business degree at Stanford University, where many he met greatly influenced him. From that Sunak moved to becoming a hedge fund manager in London, a partner at the Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) where the atmosphere is said to have been buccaneering and bold. He is a smooth talker, was trusted, made a partner after two years, and, is believed to have made millions in a deal sparking off the 2008 financial crisis. He then left to co-found Theleme – a business registered in the Cayman Islands.

Sunak, the money man

Hedge fund managers are considered by some to be spivs who gamble on the markets and bet with other peoples’ money.

Sunak the money man married into even more money. His wife, Akshata Murty, daughter of Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder of the IT company Infosys, owns Catamaran Ventures, a venture capital investment company founded by the couple in 2013. Akshata is believed to be one of the wealthiest women in the UK.

The safe Tory seat of Richmond fell to Sunak in May 2015 after William Hague had bowed out. He moved into his new constituency of Richmond, buying a £1.5 million Georgian manor set in 12 acres. It is said he entertains the constituency membership here with summer parties at which champagne and nibbles are served by uniformed staff. So a step up from the Downing Street parties.

Sunak has spent money to manage his public image, to imbue his image with more of that compassion and empathy he is said to lack, giving him a warmer, more cuddly persona. According to the article in OpenDemocracy, Jonathan Dean, an associate professor of politics at Leeds University, commented that politicians draw on tactics from the world of celebrity influencers, partly because they can mask their political views.

“A lot of politicians don’t have a particularly coherent or well-thought-through set of ideological commitments or kind of policy ideas. And I think certain forms of celebritisation allow them to circumvent that.”

Jonathan Dean

This referred to Sunak, but it may be even more applicable to Johnson.

Sunak’s recent announcement of a £200 loan to help offset spiralling fuel bills has not gone down well, and shows a lack of empathy for those faced with a choice of heating or eating while the Chancellor muses how to spend time in his other homes – reportedly a £7m, five bedroom house in Kensington in London, a flat in Kensington said to be kept for visiting relatives, and an apartment in Santa Monica, California.

Backed no deal

Nor does the guarded and quiet Sunak play the parliamentary game. He has been very quiet about Partygate, perhaps partly through loyalty, perhaps with his own future career in mind.

Tatler says: “At the height of tensions over Brexit last year, he was cheerfully going around Westminster saying he would back ‘no deal’ if push came to shove. He struck the right note, in the right place, at the right time.”

The Chancellor also has links with a number of right wing think tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and Policy Exchange. He cited restrictions being economically damaging when a ciruit-breaker lockdown was proposed in September 2020 and has consistently argued for diluted covid restrictions.

Again from Tatler: Concern can be felt by some in Downing Street that he may have grown too popular and too important. ‘There are those who hate him, as he’s now unfireable,’ said one MP. ‘There are many who don’t like the fact another power base is emerging.’

Betting on success

But back to the bets. This is a telling paragraph from the Tatler article.

‘If we’ve lost Rishi, we’ve lost the future of the party.’

And therein surely lies the worry behind the “I wouldn’t have said it” remark. If Sunak, the guy whose bets in his financially successful hedge fund career, his espousal of Vote Leave and of Boris Johnson for Prime Minister was now seen to be rowing back on his support for the Prime Minister and for his policies (the Treasury has delayed funding for post-Covid NHS recovery so sticking an oar in Johnson’s positive messaging) then the future of the party as many see it must indeed be in jeopardy.

Rishi’s bet is now seen as no longer in favour of Johnson but in support of his own ambitions for the top.