Commentary: Rishi Sunak is a fascinating combination of new and old-fashioned Tory

New leader of the Britain’s Conservative Party Rishi Sunak walks outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, in London, Britain October 24, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

It is a nice coincidence that Rishi Sunak has won the leadership of the Conservative Party, and hence the prime ministership, on the most important day of Diwali, the “festival of light” celebrated by Hindus, along with Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists. Diwali supposedly marks the triumph of “light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance.” It is also associated with wealth and prosperity. In February 2020, Sunak took his oath of office as chancellor of the exchequer holding a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and celebrated Diwali by putting lights outside his official residence at Number 11 Downing Street. He will now be the first Hindu to become U.K. prime minister. His time in office will hinge on his ability to deliver a reasonable measure of prosperity to a country that is in dire economic straits.

Sunak has a fighting chance of restoring order to the Conservative Party and the U.K. government. Certainly better than Penny Mordaunt, who dropped out of the race at the very last moment. While popular, she is relatively inexperienced, having only served for a few months in the cabinet as defense secretary. We don’t have to recite the resume of Boris Johnson, a one-man wrecking ball. Perfectly turned out in a suit and narrow tie, Sunak cuts a commanding presence compared to Johnson. Fitting the two men into Max Weber’s equation, Sunak is “ethic of responsibility” made flesh while Johnson is his “ethic of irresponsibility.”

In many ways, Sunak is a completely conventional British prime minister. He was educated at Winchester College (where he was head boy or “Sen. Co. Prae” in the idiosyncratic language of that institution) followed by Lincoln College, Oxford where he read PPE (that is, received a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, the staple subject or aspiring politicians and civil servants). He is inordinately fond of football. If the naughtiest thing that Theresa May did while growing up was to run through a field of wheat, the naughtiest thing that Sunak did as a schoolboy was to smuggle a handheld television into the school so that he did not miss any key Euro 96 matches. On his 18th birthday, he received a card signed by the entire squad of his favorite team, Southampton, a gift that became one of his most prized possessions.

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Soon after making his fortune as in the world of finance, he went into parliament in 2014, inheriting one of the safest seats in the country, Richmond, Yorkshire, from a previous Party leader, William Hague. He rose rapidly and smoothly up the ministerial ranks, becoming undersecretary of state for local government in 2018, chief secretary of the treasury in 2019, and chancellor in 2020, a meteoric rise that saw him enter the cabinet just 50 months after winning his seat.

In other ways, starting with his Hindu faith, he is unconventional. He is part of a wave of upwardly mobile ethnic minorities who flooded into the Conservative Party in defiance of the left wing illusion that non-Whites are natural socialists. (Kwasi Kwarteng, Liz Truss’s chancellor, was another example of this phenomenon.) His parents immigrated to Britain from India after a spell in East Africa and made their careers in the health service – his father as a doctor in Southampton, his mother as the owner of a small pharmacy. The fact that Sunak just missed getting a scholarship to Winchester, an expensive as well as an academically demanding private school, meant that the family had to scrimp to afford the fees.

Sunak is more of a global citizen than most of his fellow Tories. He completed his education at Stanford Business School, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where he met his Indian-American wife, Akshata Murthy. He laid the foundations of his personal fortune working for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York before joining a U.S. hedge fund. He loves the American, particularly the Californian, entrepreneurial spirit, and has a house in Santa Monica, Los Angeles.

He is also much richer – indeed, arguably the richest prime minister since Arthur Balfour whiled away his time in office playing golf on the two golf courses in his estate in Scotland. His wife is the daughter of one of the richest men in India, N.R. Narayana Murthy, one of seven founders of the outsourcing and IT giant, Infosys. He’s a plutocrat in a party that has been taken over by the struggling bourgeoisie.

Sunak belongs to the governing Conservative wing that swings wildly between responsible government and irresponsible populism. He’s an excellent manager who has received plaudits from the permanent civil service in every department that he’s been part of. Tom Scholar – the former permanent secretary of the treasury who Liz Truss sacked in one of the first moves that doomed her premiership – has waxed lyrical about Sunak’s abilities as a newly arrived chief secretary of the treasury. He’s also a natural technocrat who speaks the same language as technocrats the world over.

This doesn’t mean that he’s any less of a Tory as some of his critics imagine, including Brexit ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg who has dubbed Sunak a “socialist.” (Rees-Mogg is establishing some kind of record by becoming more ridiculous as he gets older.) Sunak was a Brexiteer when Johnson was still undecided on the subject, regarding Europe as a hidebound backwater in a world that would be increasingly dominated by Asian giants and American dynamism. The incoming prime minister is also a long-standing believer in a small-state and tax cuts. In a budget debate in July 2015, two months after he was first elected to parliament, he declared that “in normal times public spending should not exceed 37% [of gross domestic product]. That is the best estimate of our income as a government and therefore the best guide to what we can afford to spend.”

His disagreement with the Tory right was about timing and pragmatism – not about the desirability of allowing money to fructify in the pockets of the people. He favored “a big bazooka” during the covid epidemic to prevent a collapse in demand (“this is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy”); and he opposed Truss’s combination of tax cuts and increased public spending because he thought that it would crash the economy.

Sunak, then, is a traditional post-Thatcherite Tory whose heart is in the same place as most other Tory MPs but who is also devoted to good government. This combination will go down well with the markets, which want nothing more than stability over the chaos of recent weeks, and with technocrats, in Brussels, Washington and elsewhere, who recognize Sunak as one of their own.

But his ascension threatens to produce serious tensions among the Tories. The Conservative Party contains a dangerous little-England strain. In an interview on radio station LBC that has gone viral, a Tory Party member proclaimed that he was backing Johnson because Sunak is a globalist with Indian roots who doesn’t love England the way Johnson does. The fact that Sunak kept his U.S. green card when he was chancellor and that his wife claimed tax exempt status by claiming not to be a UK resident provide little Englanders, on both the left and the right, with powerful ammunition. She has since renounced the status and he has surrendered his American residency.

The Party also contains an even larger populist strain that rails against the rule of technocrats and experts – resents constraints on the popular will, whether they come from judges or bond traders. Both little Englandism and populism have been significantly strengthened by the very Brexit policy that Sunak supported for very different reasons.

Sunak has supporters from across the party from left to right. He also has a taste for order and process. But whether the Conservative Party in its current incarnation – traumatized by Brexit, schooled in rebellion and divided over fundamental principles – can come to heel and behave sensibly is still to be discovered.

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Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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