Rishi Sunak, Scion of Britain’s New Ruling Class
The new prime minister’s wealth matters more than his background.
In December 2019, nearly 14 million people voted for Boris Johnson to become prime minister of Britain. Last month, 140,000 Tory members voted for Liz Truss to succeed him. And today, the support of 195 Conservative members of Parliament was enough to install Rishi Sunak on Downing Street.
British democracy is shrinking, and the result is Sunak—a politician who lacks a popular mandate but does have incredible wealth and an air of hoodie-wearing dorkiness. Let me be clear about how cringe he can be: The 42-year-old once told a pair of schoolboys that he was a “total coke addict” before clarifying, with a small, snorting laugh, that he was referring to Coca-Cola. He wears his designer slides with white socks. He owns a $200 “smart mug” that heats itself. His victory speech revealed all the charisma of a recorded announcement at a train station. Every time I see him on television, I feel an atavistic urge to give him a wedgie and steal his lunch money.
Sunak’s success is a direct consequence of Truss’s complete and total failure. Only six weeks ago, she beat him to the Tory leadership, but a parade of nightmare decisions panicked the bond markets and doomed her premiership. After that debacle, her wounded party moved to find a replacement—fast. By insisting that any potential candidate had to be nominated by 100 of their 356 colleagues, the Tories’ “men in gray suits” narrowed the field and ensured that this new leadership contest would favor known quantities.
Only three people had the potential to succeed. Sunak was the obvious choice, because he had attracted the most support from members of Parliament in the last leadership election (before losing to Truss among rank-and-file Conservatives). The second possibility was Penny Mordaunt, the supposed “unity” candidate, who did not secure enough nominations to stay in the race. And the third was Boris Johnson—yes, that Boris Johnson, of the haystack hair and grudge against monogamy, a man whom many of these same MPs had declared to be unfit for office only three months previously. Johnson flew back early from a holiday in the Caribbean, looking like he had slept in a hedge, and made some phone calls. Then he withdrew from the race late last night, all the while insisting that he could have made the ballot had he wanted to. That left Sunak as the only candidate.
In one sense, Sunak’s success is a triumph for diversity: He is the first Briton of Indian descent to be prime minister, and, as a Hindu, the first non-Christian. But it is also a victory for the establishment. Sunak attended Winchester College, a private boarding school that last produced a prime minister in 1801, and then Oxford, which produced five of the past six. “England was ruled by an aristocracy constantly recruited from parvenus,” George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, of the first half of the 20th century. “And considering what energy the self-made men possessed, and considering that they were buying their way into a class which at any rate had a tradition of public service, one might have expected that able rulers could be produced in some such way.” Sunak might once have been an outsider, but he hasn’t been one for a long time.
As it happens, I conducted what was probably Sunak’s first big political interview, in May 2014, just five months before he was selected for the safe Conservative seat of Richmond, in rural Yorkshire. Working for a think tank called Policy Exchange, he had come to the BBC to promote a report arguing that politicians should no longer lump all Britons of color together as “BAME”—“Black and minority ethnic”—but should acknowledge each distinct community on its own terms. At the time, the Conservatives were failing to attract nonwhite voters whose attitudes and circumstances should have made them natural Tories. They had small-c conservative opinions, and if the party could shrug off its associations with golf-club racism, these voters might flock to it. “By no means are they in favor of mass immigration,” Sunak told me. “They distinguish between immigration that happened 50 or 60 years ago, when their grandparents or parents came to this country, integrated, worked hard and what they see happening now, which is in their perception, not the same.”
His analysis was right: The Conservative Party is much less white today, while still being opposed to mass immigration. In Truss’s first cabinet, none of the four most important offices was held by a white man. The breakout star of the last leadership election was Kemi Badenoch, who lived in Nigeria until she was 16.
As I listen to this interview eight years later, what strikes me is that Sunak was describing his own life story. His parents followed a well-trodden post-colonial path from India to East Africa to Britain in the 1960s. Having settled in Southampton, an unremarkable port city in southern England, his mother became a pharmacist and his father a family doctor. The Sunaks gave their boy the best (or at least most expensive) education they could. Apart from his ethnic background, everything about his subsequent career screams establishment: boarding school, Oxford, Goldman Sachs, Stanford Business School, a hedge fund, then a think tank, then a political career. He is a reflection of Britain’s constant desire to fuse modernity with tradition.
In truth, Sunak’s racial heritage is less salient to most Britons than another fact about him—how rich he is. He owns a mansion in West London; a house in Santa Monica, California; and a Georgian-era home in Yorkshire with an ornamental lake and a swimming pool. Although no one’s idea of a brash spendthrift, Sunak has displayed his riches openly enough to attract comment: tailored suits, a Peloton exercise bike, that absurdly expensive self-heating cup. To those sensitive to the exquisite vibrations of the British class system, this makes him “new money.” By contrast, Boris Johnson—a scholarship boy at Eton who even got a Conservative donor to pay for the celebratory barbecue at his third wedding—has always postured as “old money.”
Sunak’s wife, the fashion designer Akshata Murthy, is even richer. She is the heir to an Indian telecommunications fortune, and the revelation in April that she was a “non-dom”—a foreign national who paid a £30,000 flat fee in lieu of millions of pounds in income tax on earnings outside Britain—nearly sank her husband’s political career. (To add to the Rishi Register of Cringe, the legitimate media attention on his wife led Sunak to declare that he sympathized with Will Smith’s defense of Jada Pinkett Smith. “At least I didn’t get up and slap anybody, which is good,” he added.) The same month, it emerged that Sunak had held a green card until October 2021, allowing him permanent residency in the United States. Questions about how committed he was to living the rest of his life in Britain have bubbled through back channels and social media.
That tax controversies have hindered his career more than overt racism seems like progress. The question now becomes: What is Sunak’s vision for Britain? He was chancellor of the Exchequer through the pandemic, and although he loved to boast about his desire to cut taxes, he kept raising them. And the public finances are now in an even worse condition than they were back then. His warnings about Truss’s economic policies might have been prescient, but he now has to deal with their consequences. His victory speech pledged to continue Johnson’s and Truss’s support of Ukraine, and he is a true-blue Brexiteer who will not soften the party’s skepticism toward the European Union, but domestic issues are thornier. Does he believe that pensions and working-age benefits should rise along with inflation, which this month hit 10.1 percent? Does he have any idea how to improve either Britain’s terrible productivity figures or his party’s own terrible poll ratings? The British people heard answers to none of these questions during the leadership contest, during which Sunak did not give a single interview. He didn’t need to—he could reach every single voter he needed simply by picking up the phone or walking down the corridor from his parliamentary office.
In The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell was not praising the new class of rulers—the parvenus made good—as superior to the old aristocrats. He thought both were hopeless: “One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three-quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.” Sunak, the third British prime minister since early September, and the second without a mandate from the voters, will struggle to prove Orwell wrong.