Is another Emmanuel Macron in the making within the setup of Westminster? Forty-year-old Rishi Sunak is confident, empathetic, insightful, fresh and assured, and like Macron, he was a young investment banker with no political experience prior to his appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Incidentally, Sunak is the most popular Conservative politician in the United Kingdom at the moment, much ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
With his tanking popularity, the dual effects of Covid and Brexit and increasing public support in Scotland for independence from the UK, Johnson could feel more and more pressure in his premiership in the coming days. And as Johnson floundered amid the pandemic and his approval ratings plummeted, within a brief but overwhelming political career, Sunak, Maharajah of the Yorkshire Dales as he is sometimes called, has become a “beacon of calm and competence”.
Sunak is a traditional British political prodigy almost having an aura similar to what Tony Blair had in the early 1990s and David Cameron a few years later. All three were Oxford-educated and in their early 40s. However, the dream elevation of Sunak to the power corridors of British politics may be attributed to sheer luck in many ways. In February 2020, Sajid Javid’s stormy resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the equivalent of the Union Finance Minister in India, elevated Sunak, Javid’s deputy. Sunak is possibly the first British Chancellor who, at the time of his appointment, had been in parliament for less than five years and, effectively, the first without full cabinet experience. This is in contrast to the average occupant of the post, who at the time of appointment would have had five years in cabinet and about thrice as much in parliament. Of course, the pandemic boosted Sunak’s profile and became instrumental in his skyrocketing popularity, making him the most popular Chancellor since Gordon Brown.
As Britain’s Covid-time finance minister, Sunak immediately found himself in charge of a £350 billion package to boost the UK economy – the largest ever fiscal stimulus recorded in peacetime. It was a rare opportunity, and, to his credit, Sunak grasped the opportunity diligently. “This is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy, this is a time to be bold, a time for courage,” Sunak told in his first Covid press conference in mid- March. “I want to reassure every British citizen this government will give you all the tools you need to get through this. We will support jobs, we will support incomes, we will support businesses, and we will help you protect your loved ones. We will do whatever it takes.” People loved the empathy and compassion of the Chancellor during such an unprecedented crisis. The Guardian wrote that Sunak “claimed the Tories were now ‘the party of public services’.”
Rishi Sunak, the son-in-law of Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy and the MP from Richmond, Yorkshire, since 2015, was virtually unknown even a year ago. “Just five out of 1,191 named Rishi Sunak” in a poll conducted in December 2019 by Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University. However, as BCC wrote, “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’.” Of course, the rise of Sunak has been largely stimulated by an unprecedented type of personal marketing including in social media.
The case of Sunak is, however, different from that of Macron, especially in post-Brexit multi-ethnic Britain. With the country’s imperial past and having 6.9 per cent Asians in its population in 2011, of which 2.3 per cent are British Indians, Sunak, the son of Indian migrants in the UK, and the second-youngest Chancellor of the Exchequer who took his oath by swearing on the Bhagvad Gita, is emblematic of present-day British society. Sunak might enjoy much more than the 20 per cent of the ethnic minority vote that Conservatives bagged in the previous election. Many people in the UK, even many Conservative MPs, see him as the prime ministerial candidate in the next election in 2024.
Although Sunak’s popularity with the voters is skyrocketing, his elevation to the premiership will not be straightforward. Despite record spending plans, the biggest spike in unemployment in more than three decades is on the cards in pandemicdriven Britain. While Johnson will face the heat primarily, will Chancellor Sunak be able to escape the baggage completely? There is no denying that Sunak lacks an independent political base. In all likelihood, he’ll face tough competition from his former boss Sajid Javid and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt if he wants to replace Johnson for the top post in near future. Interestingly, the rise of Sunak is also going to be a testing point of Labour leader Keir Starmer, whose leadership has been largely built around Johnson’s inadequacies.
Sunak is a modern non-ideological Conservative, as William Hague, the Conservative MP of Richmond prior to Sunak, said. British politics is going to be redefined in the post- Brexit Covid-hit Britain. However, to what extent he will be able to save Britain from its worst recession in three centuries is going to be a defining issue in British politics. At the moment though, it’s an astonishing story of rise and rise.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.