It goes to the credit of Britain’s democracy that a young man born to Indian immigrants (a Hindu at that) defeated veterans in an overwhelmingly white constituency and finally moved into 10 Downing Street. All that mattered to the Conservatives and British voters was Sunak’s many qualities.
Sunak identified with the Tories even when young. He loved hard work, not handouts. Ahead of the 1997 election, at age 17, Sunak bitterly opposed Labour’s proposed minimum wage. He feared that public sector pensions would bankrupt Britain. Politics was always in his blood but success didn’t come easily. When it did, it came with a bang.
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It was a 2014 report predicting that ethnic minorities would make up a third of Britain’s population by 2050 that brought 24-year-old Sunak into spotlight. He was a key author, and the study made compelling reading – waking up the Conservatives and Britain itself to a demographic challenge few had grasped. The media lapped it up. If the aim was to get noticed and contribute to a major debate, Sunak pulled it off in spectacular style.
When he plunged into electoral politics, Sunak had no godfather. He was soundly defeated in the selection contest for one constituency. But when Richmond in Yorkshire came up for grabs, Sunak tried his luck. It was one of the Conservative’s most prestigious parliamentary seats – rural and one of the whitest in Britain. Foreign Secretary William Hague had put in 26 years as MP from there. Getting into his shoes was no joke.
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With some 90 people throwing their hats into the ring, it produced one of the fiercest selection contests. Sunak was pitted against some veterans, including those with roots in the constituency. But with the party’s sole aim to pick the best, Sunak dramatically finished on top, outclassing all the opposition. Pure talent won; there was no feudal-era “high command” culture.
Sunak’s commitment and energy impressed everyone. For weeks, he walked 18 miles a day to cover the 42,000 homes and 80,000 voters. He was organized and not arrogant. Whatever doubts the white voters may have had about an Asian representing them soon vanished. The greenhorn won 51 percent of votes in his very first election. He was just 25.
High achiever in school
Born on May 12, 1980 in Southampton, Sunak was the first of three children of parents who originally hailed from Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. For them, Indians at heart, education mattered the most. Sunak did not disappoint. He was such a constant high achiever in school that some teachers felt that he would end up as Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister.
His time in high school and college suggested a consistency in leadership qualities and good character. He had none of the vices boys were attracted to. Sunak also avoided student politics. At Oxford, he preferred a club fostering links between students and the financial world. When he needed extra cash, Sunak worked at an eatery over at least two summers in 1998-99.
After graduating with first class honours, Sunak joined Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s largest investment banks. After three years of grinding work, he switched gears to spend two years at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and in the Silicon Valley in the US. Both experiences proved eminently useful. The Goldman job taught him financial modelling, a skill that would prove a huge asset when he joined the Treasury. He also gained a global outlook. It was at Stanford that he met his future wife Akshata, daughter of Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy.
Politics comes calling
He returned to London to a plum job at a hedge fund. The turbulence caused by the financial crash too stood Sunak in good stead when he became the Chancellor. He later joined a private investment partnership. Politics, his innate dream, finally came calling.
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Sunak quickly found his feet in Parliament. He did have a bad start when, following the post Brexit chaos, he backed two wrong forces in the leadership race among Tories. After two years as a backbencher, Sunak become a parliamentary private secretary in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It was the beginning of his rise. Months later, Prime Minister Theresa May made him a junior minister in the Housing Ministry.
As the Brexit turmoil continued, Sunak kept a low profile. His work and personality, however, were noticed and lauded – he was both instinctive and methodical, an unusual combination. When May quit, Sunak backed Boris Johnson, who not only won the leadership contest but in the next election led the Tories to the biggest win since 1987.
Sunak’s assured maiden speech in parliament and his handling of questions as a junior minister demonstrated he was a good communicator. Prime Minister Johnson asked Sunak to be the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It was no quid pro quo for his support; it was a vote of confidence in Sunak’s growing public appeal and his ability not to screw up. After 18 months with local government finance, Sunak knew how the Treasury worked. Effectively, he was the Deputy Chancellor – an envious promotion considering his age.
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In the elections that Johnson won so handsomely, Sunak, trusted by Downing Street for clear-headed competence, crisscrossed the country for media engagements and to back colleagues in marginal seats. Everywhere he was introduced as a “rising star” in Johnson’s government. Later, after an internal turmoil, Johnson eased out the Chancellor Sajiv Javid and elevated Sunak to the top job. He was just 39.
Twenty-seven days after this stunning development, Sunak presented his first budget – the first of a UK outside the EU in 48 years. He had less than four weeks to prepare for an event that would normally be months in the planning. He had to deliver on manifesto promises and to stamp his own authority.
“An unusually capable politician”
Before the budget could be unveiled came Covid-19, throwing everything into jeopardy. The terrible crisis that killed thousands and left the economy in shambles brought out the best in Sunak, catapulting him to national fame. The budget itself won plaudits. William Hague called Sunak “an unusually capable politician”. Some commentators even mused if they had just seen the next Prime Minister in action.
Sunak called the pandemic an economic emergency. He pledged that the government would support jobs, incomes, businesses, “do whatever it takes”. He kept the promise. There would be 330 billion pounds of government-backed and guaranteed loans – a sum equivalent to well over a third of annual state spending, and 15 percent of the country’s GDP.
With less than five years into his parliamentary career, Sunak introduced what became the cornerstone of the government’s efforts to protect jobs and incomes. A most unlikely endorsement came from Bernie Sanders in the US who declared: “What is going on in the UK is the proper approach… That is the direction we should have gone here.”
There were glitches too. But Sunak pressed on. More and more people began to look at him as a possible Prime Minister. As months dragged on, he worked an incredible 18 hours a day, looking physically and psychologically exhausted.
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By May 2020, more than half of adults in the UK were being paid by the state. As the lockdown eased, he often appeared at markets and shops – media team in tow. Sunak even popped up as a waiter at an eatery to the astonishment of diners. By the time pandemic ended, Sunak was the best regarded member of the government. In 50 months, he was Britain’s most popular politician.
There were a controversy involving his wife. But Sunak appeared untainted. Piers Morgan, the outspoken presenter of Good Morning Britain, tweeted: “I wish this guy was Prime Minister. Smart, confident, authoritative, emphatic, realistic and with a great grasp of detail. He is in a totally different league.”
For a book that came out before Sunak became the Prime Minister, it is a lively read and remarkably captures the man’s numerous qualities: talented, hard-working, ambitious, disciplined. People who dealt with him also found him humble and approachable – traits rare for politicians. “Even if not imminently, the premiership will be up for grabs eventually,” the author predicted.
Like Sunak’s school teachers, both Morgan and the author were on the dot. But beyond his qualities, Sunak succeeded because it was Britain, where a minority did not get “othered” even if they faced other issues. Sunak himself did encounter racism, just once, but he did not let it make him feel inferior. How long he remains the Prime Minister and whether the Conservatives can retain power in the next election under his leadership is another story.