Who is Rishi Sunak and what sort of chancellor will he be?
Sunak is a Conservative rising star, but No. 10 has neutered his high-profile new office
Sajid Javid’s shock resignation as chancellor yesterday has left his successor, the previous chief secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak, with under a month to produce the next budget.
This is a steep task for the most seasoned political veteren, but the new chancellor has never run a government department before, and now, at 39, he fronts the most high-profile one in the country, with many analysts saying his office’s power has been checked, controlled firmly now by No. 10.
They are conditions the outgoing Javid said yesterday that “no self-respecting minister” could accept.
Sunak did accept the position, however, and will surely have acquiesced to the terms his former boss could not: a significant portion of the new chancellor’s closest staff will be hand-picked by the prime minister and his team of advisors, challenging a long-standing tradition of Treasury independence.
He is helped by the fact he is not new to the department - he has worked as a junior cabinet minister under Javid as chief secretary to the Treasury since July last year, and also by the fact his stock is high in the party.
Who is the new Chancellor?
Sunak, the first Hindu to lead the Treasury and the second-youngest to hold the post after George Osborne, is a first-generation immigrant born in Southampton to Indian parents, whose path to prominence has been swift.
He attended private school before obtaining a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford University and an MBA from Stanford. A position as an analyst at Goldman Sachs followed, after which he was a hedge fund manager for The Children’s Investment Fund Management, later becoming partner.
In 2009 he married Akshata Murthy, whose father, Narayana Murthy, the founder of Indian multinational IT and consulting firm Infosys, is worth nearly £2 billion. The couple have two daughters.
A career as an investment banker ended in 2015 when Sunak entered Parliament as MP for Richmond in Yorkshire, taking over the constituency from the outgoing William Hague, the Conservative party’s former leader.
Unlike his predecessor Javid, Sunak campaigned to leave the European Union before 2016’s referendum, which adds to his credentials in the current political context. He voted on three occasions for Theresa May’s Brexit deal and was also an early supporter of Boris Johnson’s candidacy for party leader.
He was appointed as chief secretary to the Treasury upon Johnson’s ascension to power in July 2019, and has only increased in favour since then, becoming “one of the few ministers trusted by Downing Street as a media performer during the build up to December’s general election,” The Telegraph says.
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What now for Sunak?
Sunak now holds, after the prime minister himself, the second most influential office of the cabinet, but he will have to bide his time if the position’s full potential power is to be realised. For now, his wings have been clipped by Johnson and his staff, in particular his chief advisor Dominic Cummings.
“The reality… is that Sunak is now merely Cummings’ deputy,” says The Guardian. “With the most powerful economic policymaker now an unelected adviser, this could be the turning point for both economic strategy and for the long-fabled power of the Treasury.”
“Mr Javid was stung by jokes that he was known as 'Chino' — chancellor in name only,” says The Financial Times. “Mr Sunak… will be weaker still. Although Mr Sunak has a stellar reputation among Conservatives, government departments will no longer fear Treasury officials who say 'no' to spending requests because their word is no longer final.”
Still, if Sunak is afforded time to grow into the role, something is known of his economic predilections. He was one of the drivers of idea of tax-beneficial “free ports”, a policy that “would not only send a bold message to the world, but also provide an almighty boost to British manufacturing,” he said.
It remains to be seen if these ideas can coexist alongside Cummings’s program of nationalisation and intensive government investment, but while the advisor remains in favour, the new chancellor’s success will depend on him.
Bloomberg surfaces a research note by Capital Economics, which says Sunak’s “voting history shows he’s an ardent Brexiteer, supports reductions in corporation tax, cuts to capital gains tax and he’s gone on the record as favouring infrastructure investment. So this is either going to be a meeting of minds or Sunak will be the Prime Minister’s yes man living in Number 11.”