In Depth

Rishi Sunak: the next Tory leader in waiting?

The free-spending chancellor has far higher approval ratings than Boris Johnson

As recently as six months ago, few outside of the Westminster bubble had heard of Rishi Sunak.

But since taking over from his mentor Sajid Javid at 11 Downing Street, Sunak has seen his status rocket amid widespread approval of his handling of the coronavirus economic fallout. 

Indeed, a poll last week put the free-spending chancellor’s approval rating “ahead of everyone in the government – including Boris Johnson”, The Telegraph reports.

Who is Rishi Sunak?

The first Hindu to lead the Treasury, Sunak is a first-generation immigrant born in Southampton to Yashvir and Usha Sunak. Kenya-born Yashvir was a GP, while Usha, originally from Tanzania, ran a local pharmacy.

The now chancellor attended Winchester College boarding school, where he was head boy, before reading politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.

After a career as an investment banker, Sunak entered politics in 2015, when he took over from former Tory leader William Hague as the MP for Richmond in Yorkshire.

Sunak faced a significant challenge in winning over the constituency. Local farmers who spoke to Tatler’s Ben Judah shortly before the election aired their thoughts on their new Conservative candidate with “that infamous turn of phrase, ‘I’m not racist, but…’”.

But such comments didn’t deter Sunak, “who once joked that he and his wife made up the entire immigrant population of the constituency”, says The Day.

“Sunak’s billionaire father-in-law, NR Narayana Murthy, [was] so enthusiastic about Sunak’s parliamentary career that he’d flown in, and had even been leafleting on his behalf, wearing a Rishi sweatshirt,” according to Judah.

Until July last year, Sunak was a junior minister in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. But after a stint as chief secretary to the Treasury during which he was widely praise, Sunak was in the perfect position to take over when Javid got the boot in February.

The subsequent coronavirus outbreak in the UK has seen Sunak attempting to steer the country through crisis.

This week we announced a £30bn economic aid package that will push the total bill for the government’s Covid-19 relief measures to £188.7bn - far more than last year’s entire health spend.  

Talk in the Tory party

Many Conservative MPs now see the chancellor as the front runner to succeed Johnson as prime minister - and some would like the succession to come “sooner rather than later”, says Mutaz Ahmed in an article for Reaction.

 An unnamed senior Tory backbencher told the news website: “He’s very assiduous about keeping up with MPs. He sends texts around and does the rounds. You’d assume all politicians do that, but it’s actually rare. You have to be very ambitious.”

Sunak’s stint in the City working for hedge funds and billionaires could prove to be a stumbling block, however. “I’m always suspicious of bankers who become politicians,” a Tory insider said.

All the same, most Conservative MPs have applauded the chancellor’s “bold” approach in tackling the coronavirus crisis.

According to the Financial Times’ political editor George Parker, following Sunak’s mini Budget this week, “all the talk” in the Commons chamber “was about whether they had just been watching the next prime minister”.

Building the brand

Sunak has also “struck a chord” with many voters, writes Reaction’s Ahmed. “Not just because he was offering over £300bn in government support, but also because of the way it was delivered.

“The chancellor looked straight into the lens and spoke with empathy and compassion, two characteristics the public does not always associated with the upper echelons of the Conservative Party.”

But Sunak’s soaring popularity isn’t only down to cash and charm. Behind the policy and personality is a team shaping “Brand Rishi” with the help of television designers, marketing gurus and strategists, The Times reports.

And their marketing bombardment appears to be working.

Sunak is currently enjoying the “best ratings for a chancellor since Gordon Brown, a comparison that may give him pause to reflect on how rapidly things can change”, says the newspaper.

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