‘Going for Broke – The Rise of Rishi Sunak’: who is he, how has managed his meteoric ascent, and what’s next?
Michael Ashcroft’s new book digs deep into Sunak’s background, but it’s thin on revelations about recent events
Writing a biography of Rishi Sunak is a risky business. Given the apparently unstoppable nature of the chancellor’s ascent, there is a danger that in the gap between sending it to the publishers and it appearing on bookshelves, Sunak might have developed a vaccine for coronavirus, walked on Mars or – indeed – become Prime Minister.
Luckily for Ashcroft, Sunak is still ensconced at the Treasury and this sympathetic biography is a timely moment to take stock of his remarkable story so far. “Did the summer of 2020 represent Peak Rishi?” asks the former Tory deputy chairman and chronicler of some of the party’s leading figures. “Even if it did, it was a pretty impressive summit.”
Given that the biography stops just at the moment when Sunak may be at the height of his popularity, it leaves plenty of space for the sequel. The big question now – and Ashcroft’s book offers some clues – is how Sunak will handle the tough decisions to come and his dangerous new position as “Prime Minister in waiting”?
“He’s about to go from being Santa Claus to the Grim Reaper,” one Tory MP told me this month. While Ashcroft’s book is thin on revelations about recent events, it does dig deep into Sunak’s background to reveal a grounded individual, popular and successful at every stage of his career: from head boy at Winchester College to Goldman Sachs, hedge funds and then – apparently effortlessly – finding a safe Tory seat (William Hague’s old constituency of Richmond), then the cabinet.
Finding someone with a bad word to say about Sunak – believe me, I have tried – is difficult and Ashcroft has also struggled. The result is a story of one of extraordinary and almost absurdly repetitive success, built on high ability and rare “people skills”.
Brought up in comfortable surroundings in Southampton (the son of a doctor father and a pharmacist mother from East African Asian families), Ashcroft finds plenty of evidence of Sunak’s humility which has helped to deflect jealousy from colleagues.
Revelations are thin on the ground, though Ashcroft (or his researchers) discover that Sunak is “something of a natural at ballroom dancing”. He also unearths an essay by the 16-year-old future chancellor, fearful of the creation of a European “superstate” and lamenting plans for a national minimum wage. What perhaps is more revealing is the sections in the book where Sunak seems to disappear from view when political trouble is kicking off.
The chancellor backed Brexit – Ashcroft says it was partly down to his study of data and partly down to his “internationalist outlook stemming from his links to India and his time spend in the United States” – but he “did not feel sufficiently strongly about the detail of Britain’s departure” to resign over Theresa May’s proposed Chequers deal. Instead he kept his head down: Ashcroft says Sunak is “untainted by the Brexit wars”.
During Johnson’s efforts to tackle Covid-19, Sunak has let it be known that he has resisted lockdowns on economic grounds – catnip to many Tory MPs. While leaving No 10 to take most of the flak, Sunak’s media team burnished what Ashcroft calls “brand Rishi”, flagging up his largesse in dealing with the economic damage.
It is hard to discern from 340 pages what actually makes Sunak tick. Ashcroft recounts how Sunak appeared in his early political career to be a fiscal hawk, yet he revelled in his first Budget being “the largest sustained fiscal boost for nearly 30 years”.
Is he tough enough to make the next step to No 10? Richard Sharp, his former boss at Goldman Sachs, advised Sunak not to go into the “dirty business” of politics. He is quoted as saying he was “not sure you’d want to be with him in a knife fight”. One thing is certain: the next stage of Rishi Sunak’s career is likely to be rougher than the first.
George Parker is Political Editor at The Financial Times.
Going for Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak by Michael Ashcroft is published by Biteback.