Rishi Sunak Could Become PM. Here’s What He Doesn’t Want You to Know

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Yves here. OpenDemocracy also has a post on the misdeeds of Jeremy Hunt, but according to the latest tally at Conservative Home, Sunak is the the current leader in backing among fellow MPs.

By Adam Bychawski is a reporter at openDemocracy who tweets @adambychawski. Originally published at openDemocracy

Prime minister Rishi Sunak – reportedly the richest MP in Parliament – would be a boon for the financial lobby, tax justice campaigners have warned.

As talk turns to the next Conservative leader, the man who resigned as chancellor on Tuesday night is an early favourite to replace Boris Johnson. But experts say Sunak has not been transparent with his finances and that his hedge fund background raises questions about his commitment to fighting tax avoidance.

His profile has risen sharply since he became chancellor in early 2020, just weeks before the first lockdown began. But critics say a slick public marketing campaign has disguised a man with an ultra-privileged background, who is a committed Thatcherite ideologue.

Here’s the openDemocracy guide to the man who might just end up as the UK’s next prime minister, originally published in January 2022.

He Went to Private School

Sunak marked his first year in the Exchequer by tweeting two photos of himself: one as a child in school uniform, and one as the chancellor, standing outside Number 11.

He wrote: “Growing up I never thought I would be in this job (mainly because I wanted to be a Jedi) […] It’s been incredibly tough but thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way.”

The message carefully tip-toed around his privileged upbringing. Until the age of 11, Sunak attended Oakmount Preparatory School and then the Stroud Independent Prep School,  the latter of which now charges fees of up to £18,500 a year.

From there, he studied at King Edward VI School in Southampton (now £17,000 a year) before moving to Winchester College (now £43,335 a year).

Five chancellors and one prime minister have attended Winchester, one of England’s oldest public boarding schools and a long-standing rival of Eton, before Sunak.

“[Sunak’s] tweet made me smile,” said Richard Beard, an author whose latest book ‘Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England’ assesses the private education system and the many politicians that have been through it.

“The idea that, while studying in Winchester College, he would have never thought he would be at the top of government is very unlikely to me. Leadership qualities are one of the things that they teach you and you’re bound to think of your future in those terms.

“So he would definitely have thought that that is the kind of job that he’d be in, even if he didn’t explicitly think of chancellor of the exchequer.”

In media profiles, Sunak’s allies describe him as “immaculate”, “calm” and “organised”, qualities befitting of a former Winchester head of college. None volunteer that he is empathetic or compassionate. When given examples of people who are experiencing hardship in Parliament or press interviews, as he was on ‘Good Morning Britain’ last year, Sunak listed policies in response, but offered no consolations.

Beard, whose book is partly based on his own experiences, believes all-male boarding schools emotionally harden their students. To survive, he says, boys cannot show any vulnerability among their peers.

“If you repress emotion for yourself then ultimately it becomes very easy to repress feelings for other people,” he argues.

And while boarding schools like Winchester may prepare students well to advance in politics, Beard says they instil a worldview that is far from ordinary.

“Money is at the centre of it all because everyone knows it costs a lot of money, including the boys, but the actual money is abstract. The needs of everyday life are simply taken care of for you,” said Beard.

“How can you actually then think in terms of people struggling for five pounds and ten pounds?”

He Cut Benefits

Last year, Sunak was heavily criticised for axing a £20-a-week increase to Universal Credit that had helped some of the poorest families through the pandemic. More than 200,000 would have been pushed into poverty as a result of the cut, according to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Just weeks before the cut was confirmed in July, the chancellor requested planning permission to build a private swimming pool, gym and tennis court at the Grade II-listed Yorkshire manor that Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, purchased for £1.5m in 2015.

After several MPs from his own party spoke out against the Universal Credit cut, Sunak increased in-work benefits in his Autumn Budget – but not by enough to offset the cut.

He Has a Lot of Money

The Sunaks’ Georgian mansion, where locals described attending parties with liveried staff pouring champagne from magnums, is not the only property they own. There is also the £7m, five-bedroom house in Kensington, west London; a flat, also in Kensington, that the couple reportedly keep “just for visiting relatives”; and an apartment in Santa Monica, California.

The chancellor’s extensive property portfolio is just one source of his wealth. After studying at Oxford University, Sunak went on to work for US investment bank Goldman Sachs for four years. He left to pursue a business degree at Stanford University in California, where he said meeting influential figures in the multi-billion US tech industry “left a mark” on him.

From there, Sunak had a stint working at hedge funds back in London. He was a partner at the Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) where he is believed to have made millions of pounds from a campaign that helped trigger the 2008 financial crisis.

Sir Chris Hohn, the fund’s founder paid himself a record £343m in the first year of the pandemic. TCI is ultimately owned by a company registered in the Cayman Islands, according to its accounts. Its philanthropic arm, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), donated £255m to charitable causes last year (full disclosure: openDemocracy has received funding from CIFF since 2019).

Sunak then left to co-found his own firm Theleme, which had an initial fund of £536m – and is also registered in the Cayman Islands.

Grade II-listed Kirby Sigston Manor.

|Paul Buckingham, CC BY-SA 2.0

His Financial Interests Aren’t Very ransparent

The Cayman Islands are one of the world’s top offshore tax and secrecy havens. When an investment is made through a hedge fund in the Caymans, “nobody can possibly know where the money has come from”, said Alex Cobham, the chief executive of the Tax Justice Network.

Not all the money that goes through the Caymans is dirty, and hedge funds argue that they need to keep their investment strategies secret to be competitive.

Nevertheless, “it is probably the best, certainly the most reputable, way of allowing fairly questionable money in large volume to go into mainstream financial markets,” said Cobham.

An estimated $483bn (£357.62bn) a year is lost in cross-border tax abuse by multinational companies and by individuals hiding assets in havens like the Cayman Islands, according to the Tax Justice Network.

“Somehow, in the financial sector, we still have this idea that it’s basically smart to game the system. If these are the people, and the culture, that is coming into public life then we’ve got a real problem,” said Cobham.

When Sunak became a minister in 2019, he placed the investments he held from his years of working in finance into a ‘blind trust’. Such agreements are intended to avoid conflicts of interest by handing over control of assets to a third party, but whether that works in practice is questionable.

“These trusts don’t necessarily come with any legal mechanism to prevent the owner of the assets actually dictating what happens, or indeed seeing through any claimed blindness,” said Cobham.

“If politicians were willing to make the arrangement transparent, including the legal documents, we might have some confidence in them,” he adds.

Sunak has declared the trust in his entry on the Register of Ministers’ Financial Interests, but not the contents of it. The rest of his disclosures are remarkably minimal for a man with an estimated net worth of £200m.

Aside from the trust, he has listed his London flat and the fact his wife, Akshata Murty, owns a venture capital investment company, Catamaran Ventures, which the couple founded together in 2013.

Murty, who Sunak met at Stanford, is the daughter of Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, who co-founded the IT company Infosys. Her shares in that firm are worth £430m alone, a fortune larger than the Queen’s and enough to make her one of the richest women in Britain.

The Murthy/Murty family (Narayana’s children have dropped the ‘h’ from their name) is reported to have invested part of their wealth through Catamaran Ventures, though how much is unclear. Sunak resigned his directorship of the company in 2015.

Ministers must declare the financial interests of their close family – including in-laws – which might give rise to a conflict, but Sunak has declared only one of the companies that his wife owns. A host of other family assets – including a £900m-a-year joint venture with Amazon in India, owned by his father-in-law – are not mentioned, according to the Guardian.

Sunak is said to have met with the government’s then head of propriety and ethics, Helen MacNamara, before becoming chancellor, to review what interests should be declared. MacNamara said she was satisfied with what had been registered at the time.

He Has Strong Links to Right-Wing Think Tanks

Sunak reportedly led the hawks within the cabinet who opposed taking action when scientists recommended a circuit-breaker lockdown in September 2020, arguing that restrictions would be too economically damaging. Johnson delayed the decision and infections spiralled leading to a more punitive and lengthier lockdown in November.

“Sunak’s been the voice most consistently pushing for watering down of COVID restrictions in the cabinet. So, if you like, he is a kind of a logical continuation of that Thatcherite impulse within the Tories,” said Phil Burton-Cartledge, the author of ‘Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain’.

Soon after becoming an MP in 2015, Sunak wrote a report calling for the creation of ‘freeports’ around the UK for the right-wing think tank, Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), which was co-founded by Margaret Thatcher.

The policy idea – that tax-free, deregulated outposts will revitalise post-industrial coastal cities – was fittingly tried by the former PM in the 1980s, before being dropped by David Cameron in 2012 after proving unsuccessful.

Sunak also worked for another right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange – which, like CPS does not declare its donors – before becoming an MP, and has spoken at the Institute of Economic Affairs since becoming chancellor. All three think tanks have been consistently ranked among the least transparent in the UK.

He Has a Slick PR Operation

During the pandemic, billionaires such as NR Narayana Murthy saw their wealth increase – Murthy’s fortune was up 35% to £2.3bn in 2021 – while inequality between the richest and poorest grew. What, then, explains the seeming popularity of a former hedge fund manager like Sunak at a time in midst of a cost of living crisis?

Part of the answer might be the way Sunak has presented himself. Unusually for a chancellor, he hired the co-founder of a social media agency to manage his public image after he was appointed.

Since then, the content on his social media channels – from casual ‘ask me anything’-style YouTube videos to puppy pictures on Instagram – have more closely resembled a celebrity influencer than a frontrunner for Tory leader.

Jonathan Dean, an associate professor of politics at Leeds University, says this reflects broader political trends: “Forms of celebrity are increasingly prominent within politics, and that can either take the form of people who were conventional celebrities entering electoral politics, or it can also take the form of politicians trying to ape the publicity and performance traditionally associated with celebrity culture.”

Politicians draw on tactics from the world of celebrity influencers, Dean suggests, 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,” he said.

In Sunak’s case, it seems he has been even more successful in influencing journalists than the public. A picture of him working from home in a hoodie became a media frenzy after columnists from Vogue and GQ complimented his looks, which, in turn, spawned mockery on social media. It wasn’t long after that Sunak was being asked how he felt about being described as ‘Dishy Rishi’ in an interview with LadBible.

While Sunak may be the most popular Tory politician among the public, among party members he is second to the foreign secretary Liz Truss, his main rival for Tory leader if Johnson goes.

Burton-Cartledge suggests that this might be because he has not demonstrated the same zeal as Truss for pursuing a ‘war on woke’.

“He is of the same mould as Cameron: economically Thatcherite, but socially liberal,” said Burton-Cartledge. “That said, I can’t see him rowing back on the tough rhetoric about migrants in the Channel.”

Update, 1 February 2022: This article was amended to reflect openDemocracy receives funding from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

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  1. griffen

    Can’t say that I followed very closely the arc of UK politics and the pending to ultimate downfall this week of Johnson. but Sunak described here reminds me of the timeless Ann Richards quote.

    Landed on third base, thinks he hit a triple. Such is life lately.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Rishi Sunak must have been planning this for quite a while and I will quote a tweet here-

    ‘Nathan Steele
    FYI – he’s using the domain name http://ready4rishi.com (which was only registered on 6th July) to cover up for the fact that http://readyforrishi.com (which redirects to ready4rishi so I’m assuming he owns it) was registered in December 2021.

    Planned for 6 months. Imagine that.’


    The City of London must love this guy.

  3. Fazal Majid

    All these are well-known, in no small part because Boris Johnson (probably) leaked his wife’s fiscal arrangements and his Green Card status in a strategic bid to head off a dangerous rival. That said, it’s a problem he created for himself by replacing Sajid Javid, who is thick as mince and would have been much less of a threat, with sharp-elbowed Sunak.

    I’m not sure Sunak is really the City’s candidate, only a lesser evil for them. he was a Brexiteer and the City was always going to be the biggest loser from that act of self-harm.

    The sad thing is, Sunak is probably one of the least objectionable of the Tury rum lot.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, FM.

      You are joking, aren’t you? I work in the City and have been aware of Sushi Sunak for years. Please read my comments on Yves’ recent post about Johnson and reconsider.

      1. Keith Newman

        I went looking for your comment on Yves’ post but couldn’t find one relevant to Sunak. Any chance of reproducing it here?

  4. guilliam

    Be very suprised if he gets anywhere near the final two. This reminds me of Michael Bloomberg’s well funded but hopeless attempt to run for president. The fact that he’s the one who’s perceived as ‘putting the dagger into Johnson’ probably isn’t in itself insurmountable but he’s also slow witted, managed to irritate lots of fellow tory MPs over the years and his ‘more austerity needed’ message is going to go down like a bucket of vomit to the ‘red wall’ tory MPs who are currently in fear of being re-elected.

    Personally if we have to have a tory government, I’m hoping the next PM is going to be Penny Mourdant who seems the best of a bad bunch and comes across as a normal human being. More importantly, she had to take on a lot of family responsibility and work to keep the family together and pay the bills when her mum died when she was fifteen and thus hopefully (I may be deluding myself here) has a bit more empathy for how tough life can get at the sharp end than most of the other sociopaths who are going for the job.
    She’s also relatively unknown to the public so she can be sold as a ‘fresh start’ to the public (notwithstanding that the tories have now been in power for 12 years). So far she’s done a decent job of keeping her distance from Johnson and avoiding getting splatttered with his shit and keeping her powder dry while her rivals start to destroy each other, so I expect to see her to come in as the ‘compromise candidate’ over the next few days

    1. Grebo

      I looked up Penny Mordaunt on youtube the other day, not being familiar with her. Telegenic, articulate and coherent, military. Reminds me in some ways of Tulsi Gabbard. She may not throw her hat in the ring this time but she’s clearly aiming for the top and may well reach it.

      On the downside, she has been involved with training Ukrainian soldiers since 2015. She has also taken in a Ukrainian refugee. Empathetic see, and doing her bit.

      She was recently touring the US, trying to cut trade deals with individual states. Echoes of British attempts to end run the EU. Won’t do her career any harm to be more well known Stateside either.

    2. Mrs Jane Margaret Hewitt

      if rishi sunak wins the vote, although I hope he doesnt, is he going to get the northern ireland protocol finished once and for all, or does he plan to re enter the eu, otherwise I would prefer Penny Mordaunt, or Liz Truss, maybe you could use some influence, and contact some mps, and ask them to back Penny

  5. Joe Well

    >>Richard Beard, an author whose latest book ‘Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England’

    The title of that book alone was worth reading the post.

    1. robert

      He sounded promising until that WEF thing came up. Hope it’s not true for him, or any of the others.
      Judging by this: ““Sunak’s been the voice most consistently pushing for watering down of COVID restrictions in the cabinet. So, if you like, he is a kind of a logical continuation of that Thatcherite impulse within the Tories …” it may not be true. We can hope.

  6. Felix_47

    It is striking to what degree the wealthy today are the product of labor arbitrage. His wife is heiress to a great fortune as her father founded Infosys which has managed to displace thousands of Americans in IT with low wage Indian workers. It is not that the US workers were not innovative and hard working…..they were just too expensive to allow profits to be obscene. Amazon is another variant. Chinese labor making gadgets and everything else. Free trade has not served the workers in the US and the UK very well as best as I can see. Cheap imports but the productive jobs have vanished.

  7. Oh

    After reading the Open Democracy link I can tell this aholejoker is another Obama who wanted to be PM even in High school. Besides, he’s a hedge fund scumbag and married into money. The link shows the founder of Infosys to be what the is – another wealthy brahmin elite. Pox on all their houses!

    You can see that this kind of scum rises to the top everywhere. It would be fun watching the UK go down the drain fast. After all, the US has been about 7 years behind as far as decline is concerned.

  8. Michael Ismoe

    It’s nice to see that sociopaths are the same throughout the “Liberal World Order.” Only the accents change, never the policies.

  9. ChrisRUEcon

    As an MMT-aligned graduate Econ major, I loathe Rishi Sunak for saying this:

    “The government is not some entity that has its own money, the government only has money because people pay taxes.”

    (via Twitter)

    Complete and utter idiocy on the one hand, but as many MMT people point out, it’s also deceitful, because people like Sunak and his cronies take full advantage of the state’s money creation capabilities to enrich themselves. Granted, I don’t think there are many good choices on offer from the Tories, but Sunak is the very personification of macroeconomic violence and chicanery.

  10. JEHR

    We need a run-down like this one about every single person who chooses to run for leaders of any party, in any democracy, throughout the world. There is so much hidden that needs to be revealed about all the sociopaths who run for democratic office nowadays.

  11. steve2241

    I don’t think the wife has a fortune larger than the Queen. Doesn’t the Queen “technically” own all the land in Canada, Australia and New Zealand? I believe she does.

    1. Bill Malcolm

      And you’d be wrong. Google crown lands — outside the UK, it’s a euphemism for land “owned” by governments held in right of the “Crown”, har har. As if. In Canada that ownership can amount to either provincial or federal governments. The ruling monarchs of the British Commonwealth have no personal title to it. They have their own little duchies and palaces and rent-generating land there in the UK — seems to be enough to get by on when topped up by an annual British government honorarium of millions. Wonder if the Royals have ever enjoyed England’s national meal – Heinz baked beans in tomato sauce on toast? A guilty pleasure if they have, as Prince Charlie fancies himself an organic farmer, and beans are nutritious!

      Furthermore, in Canada at least, a lot of “crown” land is in fact unceded First Nations territory, and is officially acknowledged as such except by the right wing white supremacist and greaseball trucker convoy crowd, like many Albertans. They embody the Thatcherite outlook, the princely rugged individualistic warrior of Ayn Rand myth, are generally poorly educated and think those natives should just get a job and quit complaining. Since many natives are stuck in reserves hundreds of miles from anywhere with only sporadic air service, on crap land often with no clean water, and with their children often snatched into child care which has replaced their being snatched and sent to Indian Residential Schools run by perverts of many “Christian” churches, such proffered advice is about as useful as clearing the homeless off Portland OR’s streets with American chest-beating patriotic taunts of “get a job!” Yeah, that’ll work. Every time. (In fact, the Pope hisself is due to arrive in Canada in two week’s time to “apologize” for the Catholic church’s role in treating Indian kids like animals — don’t hold your breath because he may cancel, he’s got a gammy leg, it is said.

      The First Nations of Canada had figured out by the latter part of the 19th century that the great White Queen Across the Sea, Victoria, who promised the world and signed land treaties was but a mere euphemism for the dominion governments of the day who lied by ritual as second nature. So First Nations then often refused to cede territory. Of course, these days when a First Nations decides to block a pipeline or other construction on or over their unceded territory, like the Coastal Gas Link under a supposed social democrat provincial NDP government in what we know as British Columbia, in goes the RCMP in helicopters and SWAT gear to remind them who’s really the boss. Thirty men with tasers, grenades and AR-15s descend from the sky to chop into a log cabin inhabited by five elders and a dog and arrest them all for occupying their own land. Has happened twice recently to the Wetsuweten people. It’s pretty sickening stuff. Double-talk, in fact, on the so-called government’s part, both federal and provincial. Well, I mean to say, there “are” limits to recognizing aboriginal rights when investor money push comes to shove. Right? The provincial government of Alberta owns a great percentage of the fracked LNG Coastal Gas Link pipeline, so an enlightened outlook on First Nations’ rights is thereby garronteed.

      Judging by the paranoid conservative goofballs who run Australia (the isolated white man’s bastion of the Antipodes far from “home”), no matter the political party name, I suspect the aboriginals there have even fewer rights than they do in Canada. The land that brought up Rupe Murdoch with an obsession for tits and gossip a la Sun tabloid, is pretty right wing, limits immigr-I-tion from non-whites and is in climate change denial while the proles alternately draw in lungfuls of clean eucalyptus smoke from wildfires, or drown in floods for the third time in a couple of weeks in Sydney. Saw interviews yesterday of sand-baggers saying it wasn’t human-caused climate change flooding, just El Nina. Sure, mites! The koalas agree! And the Great Barrier Reef isn’t dying, it’s just having a kip.

      As for the Tories of Blighty, the land of my birth and upbringing in the 1950s before our family fled to the frozen colonies, these days they have an embarassment of choice of totally inept ideologues from which to choose a new leader and thus PM. Dozens qualify as rentier chattel. This Sunak bloke appears to be as useless as many of the other contenders. So good luck to him as Albion slides down the loo to oblivion and third rate pipsqueakdom unrespected by anyone else, a caricature of its mind’s eye. Well, Tony Blair as a neoliberal socialist really got the ball rolling when he was PM, and it’s been a steady stumble downhill on the rocky slopes ever since. What they have to really worry about is who’s going to feed them, because the EU has zero time and a lot of contempt for them, courtesy of that “wizard prang, old boy!” public schoolboy clown Boris and his Brexit posturing.

  12. Sausage Factory

    just another souless sociopathic product of the UKs private schooling system and the City of London Plc. Torys will love him. The UK population less so, he’ll get a couple of uber tough years as western sanctions against Russia completely destroy what is left of the western financial system and energy industry (whilst the Eurasians build their own) and then Britain will drop the torys like a brick only to vote for the establishments continuity candidate of choice Sir Keir Starmer (clue is in the title) Britain is doomed but then so is Europe thanks to the Americans!

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