(The Article was first published on 18 July 2020 and is being republished from The Quint's archives as Rishi Sunak won the Conservative Party leadership race, becoming the first non-white UK prime minister.)
Rishi Sunak has worn many hats and has varied identities depending on where you’re looking at him from.
To many Indians, he is Infosys boss Narayan Murthy’s son-in-law. To those in Northern England’s Yorkshire, he’s a son-of-the-soil Member of Parliament. To those across the United Kigndom, he is the Briton responsible for steering the country through the COVID-hit economic crisis.
Sunak, 40, who, in February, took over as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the equivalent of the Union Finance Minister in India, has seen a steady rise in British politics. He presented his first Union budget in March 2020.
Known initially as an Oxford-Stanford educated hedge fund manager, Sunak has risen as a Conservative politician who voted in favour of Brexit and over the last couple of years, has built a ‘brand Rishi’ – all of which might see him become a possible candidate for Prime Minister of the UK in the years to come.
Identity & Background
Sunak was born in Southampton in northern England to parents of Indian origin who emigrated to the UK from East Africa. His father worked as a general physician under the National Health Scheme and his mother was a pharmacist.
“I grew up watching my parents serve our local community with dedication. My dad was an NHS family GP and my mum ran her own local chemist shop. I wanted to make that same positive difference to people as their Member of Parliament,” his official website says.
According to The Guardian, “Sunak showed an early interest in the mechanics of trade by doing her bookkeeping.”
He went to an exclusive primary school called Winchester College, subsequently going on to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University – often considered the route into British politics.
During his time in college, “despite gaining a first in the traditional politician’s degree, he rejected student politics and instead devoted his spare time to his fascination with money, becoming president of the Oxford University Investment Society,” his profile by The Guardian states.
He later pursued an MBA from Stanford University where he met Akshata Murthy, daughter of IT baron NR Narayana Murthy the co-founder and chairman emeritus of Infosys. The couple now has two daughters.
“My parents sacrificed a great deal so I could attend good schools” he states on his website, adding “That experience changed my life and as a result I am passionate about ensuring everybody has access to a great education.”
Sunak has branded himself on social media as an MP-next-door through pictures of him in a hoodie, and of him “helping out at a Japanese restaurant, where he served food – although he attracted a wave of criticism online for standing too close to customers and not wearing a mask,” the BBC reported.
Sunak was serving food at Wagamama, a Japanese restaurant in Central London, to promote his scheme of “Eat Out to Help Out” - where households are given vouchers to use when dining out.
A COVID Time Finance Minister
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sunak presented his first budget on 11 March in a COVID-battered country. Ditching a decade of Conservative economic orthodoxy, The Guardian writes, Rishi Sunak “claimed the Tories were now “the party of public services,” as he turned on the spending taps with a £30bn package.”
The BBC’s economics editor, Faisal Islam, rather enthusiastically wrote, “But the government also enacted its central manifesto offer – rather spectacularly – to borrow a huge amount of money to fund public services.”
Sunak’s budget had two heads: tackle the pandemic and fund public services. “Rishi Sunak was not even 10 when we last had a Budget that pumped so much money into the economy: £175 billion extra in spending, not just on infrastructure, as expected, but also on current spending,” Islam wrote for the BBC.
A majority of this spending was allocated for day-to-day departmental expenditure including on tens of thousands of nurses, policemen, and public infrastructure. The budget also included a £5 billion emergency response fund to support the NHS and other public services in England.
Hedge Fund Days
Right after graduating from Oxford University and prior to his MBA at Stanford, he worked as a graduate trainee at Goldman Sachs for three years. Following his MBA, Sunak transitioned into hedge funds and joined the Children’s Investment Fund (TCI), which eventually emerged as a controversial tenure.
Infamously, TCI led a campaign against ABN-Amro which resulted in its sale to the Royal Bank of Scotland. “The deal loaded RBS with crippling debt and led to a £45.5bn government bailout,” the Guardian wrote, adding “The Treasury says Sunak played no role in that deal, but as chancellor he is now ultimately responsible for managing the taxpayer holding in the bank.”
Prior to becoming an MP, Sunak, along with his wife, founded an investment firm, Acamar Ventures. The 40-year-old is among the wealthiest MPs currently in Parliament.
“I used that experience to help small and entrepreneurial British companies grow successfully,” Sunak writes on his website, indicating how his hedge fund days have shaped his current politics.
“From working in my mum’s tiny chemist shop to my experience building large businesses, I have seen first-hand how politicians should support free enterprise and innovation to ensure our future prosperity,” he adds.
Brexit-Championing Conservative MP
Sunak was elected to Parliament as a conservative candidate for Richmond (Yorks) in 2014, a seat previously held by another former rising Tory star, William Hague. He was re-elected in 2017 with an increased majority up from from 36.2 percent to 40 percent.
As a Tory, “He voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal on all three occasions that it was put to parliament, but was also an early supporter of Boris Johnson,” the BBC writes. His support for a mercurial Johnson was rewarded in July 2019 with a promotion from local government minister to chief secretary to the Treasury.
Sajid Javid, quit as chancellor of the exchequer following a power struggle with 10 Downing Street and Sunak stepped into his shoes, entering what is known as one of the “Great Offices of State”, referring to the four most senior and prestigious posts in the British government.
The British media, unsurprisingly, has bestowed several epithets on the MP. The BCC writes, “He's been dubbed “Dishy Rishi”, “Britain's economic Jedi” and “Santa Claus in hazmat” in recent months, but most often he is referred to as a "possible future prime minister”.”