Will Claire Coutinho prop up Rishi Sunak's plummeting political fortune?
The Indian-origin politician is an energetic and strong communicator who might be able to sell the British PM better than he can himself
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promoted yet another Indian-origin minister into his cabinet. Claire Coutinho, who was elevated to the post of Energy and Net Zero secretary, joins Home Secretary Suella Braverman and of course, Sunak himself, to bring the Indian-origin contingent of the UK cabinet to three strong out of a total of around 30 ministers.
At just 38 years old, Coutinho becomes the youngest member of the cabinet and shares a career trajectory very similar to Sunak. Having become a Member of Parliament as recently as 2019, she becomes the first Conservative MP to be first-elected in 2019 to make it to the cabinet. Seen as the new rising star, Coutinho has been a long-term ally of Sunak from the time he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Born in London in 1985, Coutinho’s family originally hails from Goa like her colleague Braverman, but unlike Braverman who has adopted Buddhism, she remains a Christian. Coutinho’s parents came to the UK in the late 1970s from Pune. Her father Winston worked as an anaesthetist and mother Maria as a General Practitioner (GP) in the British National Health Service.
One of seven siblings, Coutinho was privately educated at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich in South London – the second oldest independent girls’ school in the country – before going to Oxford University. Graduating with a master’s degree in maths and philosophy, she was immediately snapped up by investment bank Merrill Lynch for their emerging markets equity team.
In 2012, Coutinho left finance and was tempted briefly into a culinary career setting up a literary-themed supper club called The Novel Diner. The pop-up dining club hosted dinners in different restaurants based on themes around well-known books like 'The Great Gatsby'. Coutinho ran the events company with food journalist Mina Holland, and even appeared on a UK TV game show called 'The Taste', which featured cooking goddess Nigella Lawson as a judge.
Entry into politics
When 'The Novel Diner' disbanded in 2015, Coutinho joined the centre-right think tank Centre for Social Justice and moved on to accounting firm KPMG as a Corporate Responsibility Manager. A committed Brexiteer, Coutinho left KPMG for politics in 2017 so that, in her own words, she could help deliver Brexit “from the inside”. She became a special adviser at the Treasury and it was here that she first worked with Sunak as aide to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
In 2019, Coutinho fought her first parliamentary election from the safe Tory seat of East Surrey and won with a majority of 24,040 votes. She entered the Treasury as parliamentary private secretary (PPS) in 2020 making her one of Sunak’s top aides when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and worked closely with him on the economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Sunak loyalist
Coutinho remained as PPS until July 6, 2022, when she resigned over former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the Chris Pincher affair – a day after Sunak quit the Chancellor’s post for ostensibly the same reason – and brought down the Johnson government. A Sunak loyalist, Coutinho was at the heart of his ill-fated campaign last summer to win the Conservative Party leadership. Despite her full-throated support for Sunak, Liz Truss made Coutinho a junior minister at the department for works and pensions for the brief spell she was prime minister.
When Sunak entered 10 Downing Street just over a month later and set up his own council of ministers, he moved Coutinho to minister of state for children, families and wellbeing, which is a junior ministerial post at the department of Education. And when the energy ministry fell vacant thanks to Grant Shapps' elevation to the defence ministry, it was time for Sunak to slip in Coutinho, the less well-known MP, but one of his staunchest political allies to the important post.
Coutinho is regarded as a capable media performer and Sunak hopes that she will be able to help him keep the public on his side on green issues while shoring up a reputation for competence. She is smart, energetic, and a strong communicator who some believe might be able to sell Sunak better than he can himself.
Tories' bleak prospects
Things are looking bleak for the Tories, particularly with elections due next year. The opinion polls have kept the Conservatives at least 20 points behind their main opponent, Labour, ever since Sunak took charge and they are not shifting. Isaac Levido, the chief Tory strategist, has told ministers that the polls are not looking like changing in the near future either. Bookmakers are currently offering nine-to-one to anyone bold enough to bet on a Sunak majority at the next election.
The Prime Minister has tried to boost his ratings by keeping his head down and working towards fulfilling his five pledges, but he has been unsuccessful. He and his cabinet are all seen as lacklustre and promoting Coutinho is one of the few cards left in his pack to try and energise his government.
Grassroots Tory members are unhappy with Sunak’s policies as they do not consider them Conservative enough. Just last week, Nadine Dorries, former minister in the Department of Digital, Culture and Media and a close ally of Johnson, stepped down from her MP position, launching a blistering personal attack on Sunak in her resignation letter.
Attack on Sunak
“Since you took office a year ago, the country is run by a zombie Parliament where nothing meaningful has happened. What exactly has been done or have you achieved? You hold the office of prime minister unelected, without a single vote, not even from your own MPs. You have no mandate from the people and the government is adrift. You have squandered the goodwill of the nation, for what?” she wrote. Dorries told Sunak,“You have abandoned the fundamental principles of Conservatism. History will not judge you kindly.”
Dorries’s resignation has inflicted yet another unwanted by-election on Sunak, which is likely to be held around the time that Sunak completes one year as prime minister next month. Whether he is able to celebrate the historic anniversary or not will largely depend on the results of the by-election.