Going For Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak by Michael Ashcroft
In February, Boris Johnson made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, and nine months later the first biography of him has appeared. Here is the fullest account yet written of Rishi Sunak the rising star.
Tories will read the story of his ascent to high office with enormous pleasure, for it amounts to a vindication of the United Kingdom, and of the Conservative Party.
Sunak, born in Southampton General Hospital on 12th May 1980, is descended on both sides from Hindu Punjabis who moved from India to East Africa and from there to Britain in search of a better life not so much for themselves as for their children.
Usually one member of the family would go on ahead, and the others would follow later. In 1966, Michael Ashcroft relates,
“The future Chancellor’s grandmother sold all her wedding jewellery to buy her a one-way ticket, leaving her husband and children behind in Tanzania in the hope – by no means certain – that they would be able to join her later.”
Sraksha Berry rented a room in Leicester, found a job as a bookkeeper and a year later was able to send for her husband, Raghubir, and their three children, including their daughter, Usha, who in 1972 graduated in pharmacology from Aston University.
Raghubir joined the Inland Revenue, where his many years of service were at length recognised by the award of the MBE.
Meanwhile Yashvir Sunak arrived from Kenya in 1966, joining his elder brother, who had got a place at Liverpool University to study electrical engineering.
The boys’ parents arrived in Britain a few years later. Yashvir read medicine at Liverpool, graduating in 1974, and was introduced by family friends to Usha.
They were married in Leicester in 1977 and settled in Southampton, where he worked as a family doctor and she ran a pharmacy. They are remembered with great affection by their neighbours in Spindlewood Close, the leafy suburban cul-de-sac where they bought a modern brick house with six bedrooms and a double garage.
The Sunaks attached enormous importance to the education of their children. The local state primary school would not do: as one of the neighbours says, it was “dire”.
They sent Rishi, their eldest boy, to a local fee-paying school, Oakmount, and after that had closed, to Stroud, a prep school which prepared its pupils for King Edward VI, an independent school in the middle of Southampton.
Olly Case, who went to Stroud and later taught there, said of Rishi:
“He was someone that was talked about; the teachers would say, ‘He’s going to be a Prime Minister.’”
Rishi was made Captain of Cricket and Head Boy. He was very bright, but would never have dreamed of using his intelligence to humiliate the less gifted. He got on well with everyone.
His parents decided to aim higher than King Edward VI. They wished to send him to Winchester College, one of the great schools of England.
Rishi sat the scholarship exam, and had he gone to a prep school such as Ashdown House, which specialised in preparing its most gifted pupils for that tough competition (in 1977 it won three awards – one to Winchester and two, including the present Prime Minister’s scholarship, to Eton), he too would probably have won an award.
He fell short, but his parents tightened their belts, his father took on an extra job, and they sent him to Winchester anyhow, where he thrived, and was made Senior Commoner Prefect, or head boy, though he was not a good enough cricketer to get into the First Eleven.
He talks with enormous enthusiasm about Winchester, as noted in the ConHome profile of him published in February
Sunak does not suffer from the compulsive desire of many members of the Establishment to conceal or at least downplay any privileges they may have enjoyed in early life.
He went on to Lincoln College, Oxford, took a First in PPE and became a leading light in the Oxford University Investment Society. He also worked at an Indian restaurant in Southampton, where the proprietor said of him:
“He was charming with every single person – it was not just customers but every other member of staff that liked him.”
Similar reports have been made at every stage of his career. From Oxford he joined Goldman Sachs, which took only four per cent of those who applied, and after three years as an analyst he decided to do an MBA at Stanford, funded by a Fulbright Scholarship.
He went on to work for various very successful hedge funds, before obtaining before the 2015 general election the safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire, which he took enormous trouble to get to know, informing himself about all sorts of matters, such as agriculture, about which previously he knew nothing.
At Westminster, his high ability was soon spotted by good judges such as Oliver Dowden and Sajid Javid. During the Conservative leadership contest of last summer, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick issued, at a well-chosen moment, a joint declaration of support for Johnson.
All three of them are now in the Cabinet. Javid, whom Johnson made Chancellor, requested and was given Sunak as Chief Secretary.
Sunak made such a good impression on the Tory high command that during the general election at the end of 2019, he was asked to stand in for Johnson during two of the television debates, and acquitted himself well.
In February of this year, when Javid refused, as a condition of remaining Chancellor, the loss of his team of advisers, Johnson replaced him with Sunak.
How has Sunak risen so swiftly and become so popular? The almost unbelievable speed with which he grasps things, the indefatigable industry with which he sets about the “flawless execution” of any given task, and the imperturbable resourcefulness with which since March he has doled out the vast sums needed to avert economic collapse, though all highly impressive, do not constitute a sufficient explanation.
There is something else. While studying at Stanford, he met, on the same course, Akshata Murthy, to whom he is now married. When she was one year old, her father, Narayana, founded a softwear company, Infosys, which in due course was to make him a billionaire.
Ashcroft recounts how Narayana and his wife Sudha, who served for 20 years as CEO of Infosys, handled the change in their circumstances:
“As the couple became richer, they went to great lengths to keep their children grounded. Narayana has said that his lifestyle ‘continues to be simple’ and that when he returns home from work every night, he still cleans his own lavatory.
“‘We have a caste system in India where the so-called lowest class…is a set of people who clean the toilets,’ he has explained. ‘My father believed that the caste system is a wrong one and therefore he made all of us clean our toilets…and that habit has continued, and I want my children to do that. And the best way to make them do it is if you did it yourself.’”
At the end of the book, Ashcroft lists some of the ways in which Sunak has been described by people who dealt with him:
“authentic, humble, approachable, gentle, modest, friendly, empathetic, thoughtful, respectful, sensitive, a listener. These are not the kind of words you hear about politicians every day, to put it at its most charitable. They help to explain not only his success but the lack of resentment it seems to have inspired in the ruthlessly competitive precincts of Westminster.”
Where does this behaviour come from? It must have been inculcated by Sunak’s parents, and before them by their parents. They arrived in England almost penniless, but with a rich store of moral capital.
And this must have something to do with their Hinduism. There are fleeting references to their faith:
“His grandmother’s funeral was a traditional Hindu affair, involving a colourful procession that blocked traffic in that part of Southampton. It was very well attended, on account of the role Suhag’s late husband had played setting up the Vedic Society Hindu temple in Southampton.”
The admirable rapidity with which this account has been produced meant there was no time to look into Sunak’s Hinduism. We learn that he does not drink alcohol, but he says this is because he does not like the taste or the effect of it.
During the pandemic, his advisers became worried that he was not eating:
“‘The day before he announced the furlough scheme, one of our economic advisers put a sandwich on his desk and said, “You must eat,” because he just wasn’t eating,’ says a Treasury source. ‘He was looking thin and faint.’ Another adviser says, ‘He has to be told almost every day to eat. Otherwise he’ll just work and work.’ An insider later revealed that Sunak sometimes goes without food deliberately, fasting on selected days from sunrise to sunset – not for religious reasons, but to ‘re-set after the weekend’.”
Sunak’s brilliant career shows a society whose institutions are open to talent: Winchester, Oxford, the City and the Conservative Party in Yorkshire and Westminster all welcomed him with open arms, perceiving what an asset he would be.
But another attraction of this country is its high regard for privacy. We do not seek to make windows into men’s souls. In the privacy of one’s own home or place of worship, one may practice whatever religion one may have brought with one to the UK.
I nevertheless hope that just as Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, some scholar will in due course offer us The Hindu Ethic and the Spirit of Conservatism.
What next for Sunak? He will in a few months’ time have the opportunity radically to recast the tax system, so that we do not find we have been have been bankrupted by the pandemic.
He will need to raise more revenue while stimulating the entrepreneurship which he so admires, and doing so in the areas adjacent to Richmond which have been neglected for so long.
William Hague, his predecessor in that seat, is given the last words about Sunak in this book:
“From his house, or very nearby, you can see the Tees Valley. You can see the east coast and all that Teesside area that’s been so depressed and has in the last couple of elections gone Conservative. And I think he’s really got clearly in his head that that’s a big litmus test of what he’s doing. Is that area revived in a few years’ time or not? He can literally physically see what he appears to feel very passionately about. So I think that that levelling-up agenda might become whatever Sunakism is. But it’s probably too early to say, isn’t it?”