How did Rishi Sunak go from one of the most popular members of the government to one of the least in a matter of days? Matthew d’Ancona pieces together what happened
14 April 2022
9 May 2022
Why this story?
During the pandemic Rishi Sunak defied political gravity. Many of his fellow cabinet members struggled to deal with the enormity of what the country faced. But Sunak acted fast and threw hundreds of billions of pounds at the problem. He kept people in their jobs and even invited us to eat out to help out when the first lockdown was over.
Sunak’s ascent up the political ladder was remarkably fast. He became an MP in 2015 and five years later he became Chancellor aged just 39. Sunak had it made: he had a successful career in finance behind him, properties in London, Yorkshire and California, a wife who was even richer than he was. Now he could look forward to succeeding Boris Johnson when the time came.
And that moment looked like it might come sooner rather than later. At the start of this year Johnson’s fortunes, and popularity, were plummeting as a result of the Downing Street lockdown parties. So why does Rishi Sunak now find himself in the uncomfortable position of having lost that heir apparent status? Why, in the most recent poll of Conservative Home members which measures satisfaction with the Cabinet, was he third from bottom, having been consistently in the top three?
The answer lies in what happened in the twenty days from Sunak’s Spring Statement in late March to his fine twenty days later for attending Johnson’s birthday party during lockdown. Matt d’Ancona has been piecing together the inside story of what happened. This is a story about a man who’s effortless rise through the world of finance and then politics was matched only by his precipitous fall. Jasper Corbett, Editor
You know, I think it’s totally fine for people to take shots at me. It’s fair game. I’m the one sitting here and that’s what I signed up for… It’s very upsetting and wrong for people to try and come at my wife and beyond that actually, with regard to my father-in-law, for whom I have nothing but enormous pride and admiration for everything that he’s achieved.Rishi Sunak
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: That’s Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, talking to the BBC’s outgoing political editor Laura Kuenssberg on 31 March.
You can hear it, can’t you? That trace of hurt in the voice of this normally unflappable politician, as he defends his family against a series of criticisms concerning their financial affairs – criticisms that, as we’ll see, were only just beginning.
That hurt surely reflected the natural desire of a husband to protect his wife, Akshata Murty.
But there was something else, too: an undercurrent of disbelief. After decades of rising frictionlessly through the education system, the world of finance and now to the heights of British politics, Sunak himself and his very integrity were being called to account.
That sense of profound disbelief is at the heart of the story of Rishi Sunak’s sudden fall from grace.
It’s a story of a modern-day Icarus, propelled at remarkable speed towards the sun of political success – and then, no less suddenly, crashing into the sea.
It’s also the story of sharp tensions inside Downing Street between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, during a period when calls for the PM’s resignation were at their height; of political naivete on a grand scale; and – crucially – the way in which the political landscape has been transformed by the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine.
I’m Matt d’Ancona and in this Slow Newscast from Tortoise I’ll be investigating the 20 days in which the political fortunes of the chancellor collapsed with precipitate speed, how that collapse took shape and what it means for the prospects of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the Conservative government as a whole.
I’ve spent the past few weeks talking to more than 20 senior ministers, MPs, officials, advisers and other Westminster and Whitehall figures to find out what happened during an incredibly intense few weeks – a period of harsh awakenings, brutal back-stabbing and colossal setbacks in a hitherto immaculate political career.
This story starts on Wednesday 23 March.
“Right. We now come to the Spring Statement. I now call the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak.”Sir Lindsay Hoyle, House of Commons speaker
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Little more than two years after he was appointed chancellor at the precocious age of 39, Sunak was in a tight spot.
The height of the pandemic – when announcing £330bn of government emergency measures was all in a day’s work for Rishi Sunak – now seemed a distant memory.
For most of the Covid crisis, the chancellor was Britain’s most popular politician – Westminster’s Mr Bountiful chucking cash in every direction with government-backed business loans, special funds or exemptions for sectors in dire need, and – above all – the so-called “furlough” or job retention scheme.
Back in 2020, Conservatives loved the scheme because it meant that redundancies were kept to a minimum during the crisis.
But so too did dyed-in-the-wool socialists like the hard left union leader, Len McCluskey, and – admiring Sunak from across the Atlantic – the US presidential contender Bernie Sanders, who said of the Conservative chancellor’s strategy: “That is the direction we should have gone here.”
But those days were now receding in the political rear-view mirror.
Though he had more fiscal headroom than expected, Sunak played it safe in the Spring Statement: preferring to keep a lid on borrowing rather than splashing cash on the surging cost-of-living crisis and on the rising cost of energy – a problem exacerbated, of course, by the Ukraine conflict.
But these measures felt like pretty thin gruel against the backdrop of soaring inflation at 8 per cent, energy bills rising by more than 50 per cent and the tax burden set to reach its highest levels since the 1940s.
According to the Resolution Foundation think tank the chancellor’s relative inaction was on course to push 1.3 million people, including 500,000 children, into absolute poverty.
Which was obviously a very worrying forecast for a government so noisily committed to “levelling up”.
But it was also a very important factor in all that was to follow for the chancellor personally, and the extent to which his own side did – or didn’t – rally to support him when the chips were down.
As one of his allies admitted to me: “Yes, the reaction to the Spring Statement did a lot of damage to Rishi’s political immune system. It was a fairly immediate thumbs down. We knew that the Teflon years of the pandemic were over – we knew Labour would come after us, and they did. But we were really taken aback by the response on the Tory benches, which was pretty sullen. He felt pretty lonely.”
So on Thursday 24 March, Sunak was unusually defensive in his media round…
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Here he is talking to Sky’s Beth Rigby…
“I can’t ever in this job do all the things that people would like me to do… I want to be the best possible person I can in this job because a lot of people are counting on me to do a really good job and I’ve a big responsibility… And we’ve got the challenges – and at the same time – I’m still a dad, I’m still a husband.”Rishi Sunak
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: It was striking that the chancellor should mention his role as a husband and family man at this particular moment – for that role was about to become uncomfortably and very publicly entangled with his political fate.
The chancellor’s wife is Akshata Murty, whom he met in 2004 at Stanford Business School in the United States. They married in 2009, and have two daughters, Krishna and Anoushka.
Akshata Murty is also the daughter of N R Narayana Murthy, who founded the global software giant Infosys in 1981, often described as “India’s Bill Gates”.
She holds 0.9 per cent of the company’s shares, which have been valued at £690m, and are estimated to have yielded £11.5m in dividend payments over the past year.
This means that, on paper at least, she is a lot richer than the Queen.
On the very day that her husband was under fire over the inadequacy of his Spring Statement, it emerged that Infosys had continued to operate in Russia during the Ukraine conflict.
How, then, did the chancellor square his position on sanctions as a member of the UK government with his wife’s financial relationship with a huge company still doing business in Russia?
As he told Sky, he didn’t – and didn’t see the need to.
“I’m an elected politician, and I’m here to talk to you about what I’m responsible for. My wife is not.”Rishi Sunak
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Not even Sunak’s fiercest opponents doubt the sincerity of his defence of his wife.
All the same, even his fiercest defenders were concerned by this development.
According to one ministerial ally…
“This was a side of Rish that the public had never really seen. Slightly testy and acting as if it was a bit of an impertinence for the media even to ask him the question. And, you know, fair play, he was protecting his other half, as anyone would. But that didn’t make the question improper.”Sunak ally
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: On Tuesday 28 March came the bluntest possible indictment from the Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko.
She was asked on LBC about Aksatha Murty’s holdings in Infosys.
“Any money that is put into the Russian economy in one way or the other, be it directly, be it through investment, be it through taxes paid by companies that are operating in Russia… that money goes to sponsor the army, to buy the bullets that are killing Ukrainian children… Every company has the choice to make, you can run the business as usual and make your money, but you have to live with the fact it’s bloody money and bloody trade.”Lesia Vasylenko
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: At this point, Boris Johnson’s officials started to take a keener interest. As one Downing Street aide puts it…
“We knew that Sunak was already in deep shit over the Statement and that the Infosys thing wasn’t going to help him. But here you had a prominent Ukrainian politician accusing the chancellor’s family, in terms, of living off blood money.”Downing Street aide
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: So Number 10 was not impressed when the Chancellor doubled down in a podcast interview with Laura Kuenssberg on Thursday 31 March.
Instead of acknowledging the obvious problem – that his wife was a shareholder in a company still doing significant business with Russia – Sunak clumsily compared himself to Will Smith, the actor who had slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars for making a joke about his wife.
Will Smith: “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth.”
Chris Rock: “I’m going to, okay?”
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: And to Joe Root, the then captain of England’s cricket team that had just been roundly defeated by the West Indies.
“Someone said, ‘Joe Root, Will Smith and me – not the best of weekends for any of us’. But I feel, on reflection, both Will Smith and me having our wives attacked – at least I didn’t get up and slap anybody, which is good.”Rishi Sunak
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Whatever tensions had arisen between the two men, Sunak had always been implicitly trusted by the prime minister not to drop the ball under pressure.
Now, here he was, as chancellor, trying to make light of the fact that, unlike Will Smith, he hadn’t hit anyone for what they had said about his wife.
A Conservative MP and former cabinet minister who had previously regarded Sunak as a shoo-in to be Boris Johnson’s successor had this to say…
“Where was the Rishi Sunak we had come to love? It was the old joke that used to be made about Tony Blair: ‘With Rishi you have to take the smooth with the smooth.’ And here he was, clumsily asking to be congratulated for not actually punching people.”Former cabinet minister
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: A minor stroke of fortune for the chancellor was that the Commons was going into its Easter recess, denying Labour the immediate opportunity to embarrass him across the despatch box.
But that didn’t deter Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, from piling on the pressure elsewhere – as he did in a Sky News interview on Friday 1 April…
“I would have thought the chancellor would actually want to come clean on this and say: ‘Actually I can be very very clear that my household doesn’t benefit from any money that’s come in any way from Russia during this invasion of Ukraine.’”Keir Starmer
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: On the same day, as the reputational damage accrued by the hour, Infosys announced that it was closing down its operation in Moscow as a matter of urgency – though it was reportedly still operating in Russia on 3 May.
How, meanwhile, were Sunak and his wife coping with the pile-on?
Their plan had been to take an Easter holiday in the family’s California home.
In addition to their £2m Grade II listed manor house in Sunak’s constituency in Richmond, North Yorkshire, a Kensington mews home worth £7m – paid for in cash in 2010 – and a London flat used to accommodate visiting relatives… the Sunaks own a penthouse apartment in the luxury Waverly complex in Santa Monica, valued at £5.5m.
His team believed that it was not only politically justifiable for him to take a break, but physiologically vital: he had not had anything like a proper holiday since becoming chancellor in February 2020.
Now, however, he decided reluctantly to cancel his vacation plans – mindful, perhaps, of the flak that had been aimed at Dominic Raab for staying on holiday when Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021.
As one of his team says: “We tried to gauge how bad it was – how damaging all this new attention to the family’s wealth really could get.”
It wasn’t news, after all, that Sunak had been a very successful banker and hedge fund investor before he became an MP in 2015. His wife’s independent riches, as we’ve seen, dwarf his own.
None of this had been an issue during the pandemic when voters were more concerned about their family’s health, their jobs, homeschooling the kids and getting vaccinated.
Sunak was constantly rated in opinion polls as the most popular member of the government, seen – amid many failures and errors of judgement by his cabinet colleagues – as the guy who could, in his own favourite phrase, “get things done”.
It was a different time. How rich the chancellor might be was, frankly, a matter of indifference while the country was fighting its long collective battle against a deadly virus.
But now the political context had changed completely. Covid had mostly fallen off the front pages. But inflation was rising, the tax burden was greater than at any time since the late 40s, energy bills were spiking dramatically, and economic growth was slowing.
Suddenly, being a flashily rich chancellor was not such a good look.
There had been a time when Sunak’s cashmere hoodies, his Bluetooth-enabled £180 travel mug and his evident love of the good life had occasioned only mild mockery.
But now – as economic hardship sunk its teeth into millions – his family’s wealth was attracting a different sort of attention, and none of it good.
Could a politician as rich as Sunak understand what it was like to have to choose between food and heating? To skip meals so your children could eat?
He had certainly done himself no favours by appearing tone-deaf when pressed on the question. Asked by BBC Breakfast’s Nina Warhurst what accounted for the price rise in people’s shopping baskets he had got himself tied in knots…
“It’s a Hovis kind of seeded thing. We have a whole range of different… we all have different breads in my house.”Rishi Sunak
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: “Breads”, plural? Earth to Planet Rishi: most voters only deal with bread, singular.
Again, what used to be mildly funny was starting to become serious.
In a photo-op to publicise the 5p-a-litre fuel duty cut, Sunak posed in the forecourt of a London Sainsbury’s filling a Kia Rio at the petrol pump, before paying and grabbing a Coke and a Twix.
But the photo-op, it quickly emerged, was the stuff of fantasy. The car wasn’t even Sunak’s.
Pressed on the matter at the Treasury select committee, the chancellor admitted that this was the case and that his family, in fact, drove a VW Golf.
The Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh was happy to brief Sunak on the facts of the matter…
“I just wanted to let the chancellor know that the cost in filling up my Kia Picanto has gone up from £30 to £54 in the time I’ve owned it. Mr Sunak, did you face a similar fuel hike in the time you’ve owned your Rio?”Siobhain McDonagh
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Even worse, the chancellor neglected to mention that his Golf was only one of four cars that his family drove, and by far the most modest – the others being a BMW, a high-end Range Rover and a Lexus.
Always on top of his policy brief, Sunak was revealing himself to be an amateur when it came to self-awareness and political empathy.
But wasn’t the chancellor meant to be the master of political presentation?
Yes, he had famously hired Cass Horowitz, the social media and presentational guru, as a special adviser to raise his social media game.
And Horowitz, in tandem with Allegra Stratton, the former television presenter who was Sunak’s director of communications for much of 2020, had successfully constructed a “Brand Rishi” on social media, especially Instagram.
It worked, up to a point. Sunak had become the master of the photo-op – notably in July 2020 when he did a stint as a waiter at Wagamama on the South Bank to launch his Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
“Hello! ”Rishi Sunak greeting restaurant goers
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Restaurants put “Dishi Rishi Burgers” on the menu. Wetherspoons announced their new discounts with a poster celebrating “Dishi Rishi, Legend.”
Even today, there are still Dishi Rishi T-shirts, badges and “What Would Rishi Sunak Do?” notebooks available on Amazon.
But gloss and political savvy are not the same thing. Hype isn’t wisdom. Grasp of policy and how to sell it prettily in a social media post does not always translate into the deeper political instinct that a seriously ambitious minister needs.
This became abundantly clear on the evening of Wednesday 6 April when the Independent posted an exclusive by its economics editor Anna Isaac, bearing the headline: “Revealed: Rishi Sunak’s millionaire wife avoids tax through non-dom status”.
A brief word of explanation: “non-dom” is short for “non-domiciled individual” and is an optional status open to a resident of this country whose permanent domicile is outside the UK.
A non-dom only pays tax in the UK on money earned here and does not have to pay anything to HMRC on money made elsewhere in the world.
Clearly, the arrangement meant that, while her husband had been in charge of setting the nation’s fiscal policy, Akshata Murty had almost certainly avoided millions of pounds of taxes on earnings in India and other countries outside the UK.
A Treasury spokesperson responded to the Independent’s story by insisting that the chancellor’s wife had no choice in the matter…
“India does not allow its citizens to hold the citizenship of another country simultaneously. So, according to British law, Ms Murty is treated as non-domiciled for UK tax purposes.”Treasury spokesperson
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: This was, to put it mildly, misleading. Non-dom status has nothing to do with citizenship and is entirely optional. Akshata Murty had broken no law in choosing to be a non-dom. But she had made a decision.
Alarm bells rang throughout the UK political world, mainly on WhatsApp groups since most MPs were absent from Westminster because of the recess.
As one of the chancellor’s political friends puts it…
“The initial Treasury statement was really bad because it compounded the problem of the story itself with what our enemies would see as a downright lie. It wasn’t a lie – it was a mistake. But who the hell was going to believe that?”Sunak ally
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Sunak, usually associated with Zen-like calm, was, as another ally puts it, “putting on a brave face – but obviously close to losing it finally.”
In private conversations with allies, the chancellor was already wondering whether he would have to resign – indeed, whether he ought to pre-empt a painfully drawn-out departure by throwing in the towel immediately.
How much support, more to the point, could he reasonably expect from his cabinet colleagues?
He had short-changed Michael Gove over “levelling up”, allocating a pretty paltry £4.8bn to the Government’s supposed flagship policy.
In February, he let down his friend and former boss at the Treasury, Sajid Javid, turning down the health secretary’s request for an extra £6bn to fund continued Covid testing.
Sunak had reined in Nadhim Zahawi’s plan for post-pandemic catch-up education; ignored Ben Wallace’s warning before the Spring Statement that the UK was on course to miss its Nato spending commitments by 2025; and thwarted Kwasi Kwarteng’s ambition for fast expansion of the UK’s nuclear energy capacity.
And now he was paying a price for his fiscal prudence; prudence which, by the way, he hoped would fund a pre-election tax cut that might well form the basis of a claim to the leadership.
The political realities were bleak for Sunak: how could senior cabinet ministers be expected to rally round in anything other than a performative way when he had recently machine-gunned so many of their spending dreams?
Behind the scenes, he was relying heavily on his former comms director Allegra Stratton, who is also a close family friend.
Stratton had been forced to resign as director of communications for the COP26 summit in December 2021 after ITV News released footage of her in a mock press conference, apparently joking about a Downing Street party.
“Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting [laughs]…”Allegra Stratton
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: She had not returned to Sunak’s payroll – but he trusted her implicitly to help him out of the worst jam of his political career.
Number 10’s snap instinct, meanwhile, was to defend the chancellor and his wife – at least for now – on the straightforward grounds that Akshata Murty was not breaking any rules.
In private, however, vanishingly few ministers and senior advisers believed that this line would hold.
According to one Downing Street source…
“The closer we looked into it, the more it became clear that Mr Perfect had well and truly shat the bed. A lot of us couldn’t quite believe that someone as careful about his image as Sunak had made such a 101 error.”Downing Street source
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: The chancellor, however, decided not just to stick to the line that he had adopted from the start but to dig even deeper.
In an exclusive interview with the Sun’s political editor, Harry Cole, published on Friday 8 April, he denounced what he claimed was no more than a political hit job aimed at his wife and her entrepreneurial family.
“To smear my wife to get at me is awful.” Sunak said. “She loves her country like I love mine.”
Suffice it to say that the interview did not go down well within his own party.
According to one Cabinet Minister…
“When I read that long ramble in the Sun, I just thought: “He’s toast’. Bye bye to all his leadership ambitions. He’s certainly talented and able and all that – but, christ, how inexperienced can you be?”Cabinet minister
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: To compound the sense that Sunak was indeed “out of touch” – those three deadly words – he was also forced to confirm claims that he had held a US “green card” until last year.
This document permits non-American citizens to work in the US, obliges them to pay taxes on their worldwide income and, crucially, imposes an expectation that the bearer will make the US “your permanent home”.
Sunak had indeed worked in the US as a high-flying financier before entering politics. But those days were behind him – weren’t they?
Tying itself in knots, the Treasury revealed that Sunak had given up his card only in October 2021, when he made his first work-related visit to the US as chancellor.
His allies insist that what they describe with a wince as the “green card business” was just an oversight.
But to many Tory backbenchers – whose inboxes were full of emails about their constituents’ growing hardship – it felt like a slap in the face from a man who hadn’t really decided whether he wanted to lead the UK at a time of great adversity, or leave it all behind to be a 1980s style Master of the Universe in a private jet.
As one MP put it: “We began to wonder – is his mind really on the red wall or on Wall Street?”
Either Sunak and his wife were being less than candid about the firmness of their plans to stay in the UK – leaving the door open to a future in India or the US; or they were merely playing the system to maximise their financial advantage. Neither scenario was likely to burnish their image.
Those closest to Sunak saw a politician oscillating dangerously between defiance and resignation.
His wife, unused to the brutality of public life, was also shaken by the speed with which everything suddenly seemed to be crashing down.
Stratton was now running comms for Akshata Murty and decided that Team Sunak needed the help of a heavyweight professional. For this she turned to Sarah Sands, the highly-regarded former editor of the London Evening Standard and the BBC’s Today programme, now a partner of the advisory agency Hawthorn.
The decision had to be left to Akshata Murty herself – but Sands agreed with her that she should announce her unilateral decision to pay taxes in the UK on her overseas earnings, a significant shift from the position in the Sun interview.
On Saturday 9 April, the Chancellor’s wife duly made a statement to this effect.
Her non-dom status, she pointed out, was “entirely legal” but, she continued…
“I understand and appreciate the British sense of fairness and I do not wish my tax status to be a distraction for my husband or to affect my family… I do this because I want to, not because the rules require me to. These new arrangements will begin immediately and will also be applied to the tax year just finished.”Akshata Murty
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: On the same day, a leak inquiry into the original Independent story was announced in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.
But there were many other questions still to be answered: on this second weekend of the Sunak affair, the Conservative Party was ablaze with gossip, rumour and speculation about what, in fact, had just happened, and what it all meant.
In which spirit, let us take a step back and look at four related themes of which this extraordinary story is a parable.
First, it showed how dramatically relations had deteriorated in Downing Street between Sunak and his boss.
True, the Number 10 team had gone through the motions of defending the chancellor – but they hadn’t exactly circled the wagons.
At least one of the PM’s closest aides was certain that “Sunak would walk or we’d have to fire him”.
That didn’t happen. But there were close allies of Johnson who found it impossible to conceal their schadenfreude as the Sunak Project fragmented before their very eyes.
“You would need a heart of stone not to laugh,” said one. “From ‘Dishy Rishi’ to ‘Squishy Rishi’ – all in the space of two years. Remarkable.”
Johnson himself, I am told, was careful not to join in these festivals of glee at the downfall of his political neighbour and rival, or to speculate about its finality.
But in the words of one who spent time with the PM during Sunak’s travails: “There was definitely a wolf-like glint in Boris’s eye – you could see he was thinking: ‘What goes around comes around.’”
Sunak’s team did their best to shrug off the sound of muffled cackling that was emanating from Number 10. According to one source: “Rishi was absolutely convinced that Labour was behind the campaign against him and his family. But, look – he’s not stupid. He knew that there would be people in Boris’s circle who thought Christmas had come early.”
It was easy by then to forget that Sunak had risen to the chancellorship as Johnson’s man – willing to accept the conditions that his predecessor, Sajid Javid, had refused to sign up to.
“In the last few minutes I’ve heard that the chancellor Sajid Javid has decided that rather than obey the orders of the prime minister to sack his advisory team, he has instead turned down the second most important job in government – and has decided to resign.”News clip
Following a longstanding blueprint devised by his then chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, Johnson had told Javid in February 2020 that he wanted to create a single team of advisers across Numbers Ten and Eleven.
Sunak, on the other hand, didn’t see it as a problem – not least because he got on so well with Cummings, with whom he shared a love of data and technical detail. Indeed, he was fond of quoting his billionaire father-in-law: “In God we trust, but everyone else needs to bring data to the table.” This was music to Dom’s ears.
At the time, indeed, the new chancellor had to deal with the charge that he was just the PM’s poodle, a yes man installed at the Treasury to replace the more principled Javid.
What Johnson had not foreseen, however, was that most members of the joint unit would soon gravitate towards Sunak rather than him.
The chancellor, it turned out, was also less biddable than Johnson had hoped – much more averse to borrowing than the PM, and keen to restore the Conservative reputation for fiscal conservatism as soon as the pandemic receded.
If tax hikes were necessary, so be it. If spending had to be controlled, that was the price of economic stability.
This wasn’t how the PM saw the world at all. And he was dismayed to see Sunak consistently being backed by the advisers that the two of them shared.
This wasn’t just a question of personal loyalty in other words. Sunak and his gang of advisers were committed to the Treasury’s economic doctrine of fiscal prudence and tight spending that owed more to the 1980s than to Johnson’s belief in borrowing big to fund a pre-election cash bonanza.
It was no accident that this chancellor had a portrait of Nigel Lawson behind his desk. For all his shiny modernity, he was really a Thatcherite with an Instagram account.
According to one pro-Johnson minister: “The tensions were hard to nail down but there was definitely this sense that a unit initially designed to ensure that Boris’s writ ran at the Treasury had performed a reverse ferret and become part of Team Sunak.”
These were fairly vague accusations, which reflected simmering distrust rather than outright conflict. But the animosity hardened in January, when the prime minister was forced to apologise to the Commons for the infamous BYOB Downing Street party of 20 May 2020.
“Mr Speaker, I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months…”Boris Johnson
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: At the moment when Johnson needed him most, Sunak was conspicuous by his absence from the green benches – having travelled to Devon to visit a biotech company in Ilfracombe.
The chancellor said on Twitter that he was “excited” to be making the trip. Well, no doubt. But – as he and the PM knew full well – it was the kind of non-essential visit that senior ministers cancel routinely when the heat is on and the boss needs your help.
No less irritating was the fact that it took the chancellor a full eight hours to declare his support for the PM.
In a Channel 4 News interview, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries offered a novel explanation for this embarrassing delay…
“The chancellor was on a long-planned visit down to Devon on the coast, where as we all know the wifi and the broadband… which is someone that MP for that area which he was with Selaine Saxby is constantly lobbying for… we know that he doesn’t have great signal down there…”Nadine Dorries
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: To add insult to injury, Sunak cut short an interview on Tuesday 18 January, when asked if he supported Johnson unequivocally.
Rishi Sunak [removing mic]: Ooh gosh, thank you.
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: The pattern continued. Johnson was furious when, on Thursday 3 February Sunak unambiguously distanced himself from the PM’s insinuation that Keir Starmer, as director of public prosecutions, had failed to bring charges against Jimmy Savile…
“To be honest, I wouldn’t have said it and I’m glad the prime minister clarified what he meant.”Rishi Sunak
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: As far as Johnson’s team was concerned these were the weeks of maximum danger.
On Wednesday 22 February, Sunak had dinner with William Hague, at Quaglino’s restaurant just off Piccadilly. Nothing odd in that you might think: the two politicians were friends, and Hague had represented Sunak’s constituency for 26 years.
But in the fraught context, Number 10 smelt a rat and lurid accounts of “the Yorkshire Tea plotters” appeared in the red-top press.
Worse, some of Johnson’s allies were certain that Dominic Cummings, now engaged in an open battle to bring about what he called “regime change” in Number 10, was pulling Sunak’s strings – noting that Cummings was always fulsome in his praise of the chancellor in his Substack emails, interviews and select committee appearances.
They suspected, too, that the picture of the Downing Street garden party held on 15 May 2020 had been taken from the balcony outside Sunak’s Number Eleven office – and had been leaked to the press with the help of Cummings or one of his proxies.
Sunak’s camp denies all this talk of conspiracy strongly and points out that Cummings and Stratton were always “on a different page – and that Rishi would always pick Allegra over Dom.”
Even without the involvement of Cummings, the relationship between Numbers Ten and Eleven in January and February was now close to toxic.
“The distance between Boris and Rishi had never seemed greater or more dangerous,” recalls one Johnson supporter. “We were waiting for him to act and we knew that, if he did, he could well finish off the boss.”
But Sunak didn’t act.
In regard to which, one Downing Street adviser quotes the poet Alexander Pope: “Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.”
So even before the political crisis that faced the chancellor in late March and early April, he was already regarded in the Johnson camp as much less dangerous than he had been.
“The threat level from Rishi had lowered by the early spring after he lost his bottle,” says one official. “And now, after all the tax stuff, it’s non-existent.”
The same source also claims with relish that Sunak’s fall marks the end of a long campaign against Johnson by Dominic Cummings: “How apt that non-dom should kill off Dom.”
So much for the shifting fortunes of the characters in the Downing Street soap opera. What, secondly, does this parable tell us about Rishi Sunak himself and his character as a politician?
There is no doubt that the chancellor and his wife were genuinely shocked and appalled by what happened to them. Relatively few people had known about her non-dom status which meant that this had been a breach in the circle of trust.
In the Indian press, much offense was taken at the treatment of the couple, “a lingering suspicion,” in the words of one columnist, “that this was no more than a lynching of a high-flying brown person”.
Strong words indeed, and a measure of the story’s ripple effect around the world.
Where the Sunaks undoubtedly erred was to believe, naively, that, in politics, following the rules is enough.
It is, in fact, a necessary but not sufficient condition of political survival – let alone of success.
David Cameron’s stock may not be high these days but he was absolutely right during the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009 when he insisted that rules and regulations did not define the limits of a politician’s obligations.
“I was the first to come out and say that MPs had to pay back some money . Never mind that they were acting within the rules, never mind that they were given permission at the time, the fact is the system was wrong.”David Cameron
The Sunaks took a more literalist approach. They came from the world of business, of technocracy. In both cases, their parents were self-made, hard workers whose application had paid dividends – stratospherically so in the case of the Murthy family. Following the rules was the whole point.
Again, the unique and artificial circumstances of the pandemic had lulled them into a false sense of security.
In November 2020, a Guardian investigation had revealed that Sunak’s entry in the ministerial registry of interests failed to list significant elements of his wife’s business empire.
It mentioned, as it does to this day, only her ownership of “a venture capital investment company, Catamaran Ventures UK Ltd”.
But not her directorships of the holding company of the luxury outfitters New & Lingwood; of the gymnasium chain, Digme Fitness; and of the international software development company, Soroco.
The ministerial code is explicit that ministers have a responsibility to list “interests of [a] spouse, partner or close family member” which might reasonably be seen as directly relevant to the minister’s public duties.
In response to the Guardian scoop, the chancellor took refuge behind the letter and detail of the rules and official procedure.
But common sense alone should have prompted Sunak to go beyond official requirements and think about the hugely sensitive optics that are part of being chancellor – optics which can shift markets as well as damage political reputations.
Like Caesar’s wife, the chancellor’s spouse should be above suspicion. Or so you would have thought.
On that occasion, the Sunaks caught a break: in the depths of the second national lockdown in England, the Guardian story soon fizzled out.
But the revelation of Akshata Murty’s non-dom status and the green card debacle – well, this time people were paying attention and were distinctly unimpressed by what looked like naivete or arrogance, or both.
Some Tory MPs who had previously regarded Sunak as the natural choice to succeed Johnson started to wonder what they had ever seen in him.
This, thirdly, connects to the dramatic shift in political climate and the pressures to which ministers are now subject.
In 2019, the Johnson government’s electoral mandate was to “Get Brexit Done”.
Next, it was presented with the historic challenge of the pandemic: a period in which Sunak’s stock was extremely high and his performance constantly applauded by both the CBI and the unions.
To be fair to the chancellor, he, more than anyone else, saw that his early political stardom, like the spending spree upon which he was engaged, was unsustainable.
Sooner or later, the pandemic would pass and the biggest credit card bill in history would land on the nation’s doorstep. His enthusiasm to minimise Covid restrictions and avoid lockdowns was driven by the knowledge that, the longer the economy languished in hibernation, the harder would be the journey back.
And that was before the cost-of-living crisis and the additional economic pressure of the Ukraine conflict.
“Surging prices are inflicting what the Bank of England says will be the biggest single year hit to living standards in 30 years.”News clip
“On the streets, in the homes, and behind the wheels of this country, there’s a cost to bear of a faraway conflict.”News clip
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: In 2020 and 2021, the public was afraid, and understandably so. They warmed to Sunak’s easygoing competence.
Now, they are angry as prices soar, energy becomes barely affordable for millions and taxes continue to rise.
In March 2020, YouGov found that Sunak’s net approval rating was plus 49 per cent, well ahead of any of his cabinet colleagues. By last month, the figure had fallen to minus 29 per cent.
Contemporary politics is extraordinarily volatile and, in the populist era, public support is more fickle than ever.
But Sunak’s fall is not simply a matter of mere voter caprice or fashions on social media.
It reflects a profound shift in the terms of trade.
There is a new and hostile view of huge personal wealth – a sentiment which has naturally been turbo-charged by the hard pursuit of Russian oligarchs since the invasion of Ukraine.
In 2022, in other words, to be a super-wealthy politician was to have a permanent target on your back. And the chancellor had simply not adjusted to this new reality.
He continued to believe in a fiscal conservatism whose time was past. He personified and clearly loved a tycoon lifestyle that was fast becoming a liability to his party.
“Nobody doubts that Rishi is a nice guy,” says one MP, previously supportive of Sunak as Johnson’s successor, now wavering. “But is a chancellor who thinks it’s ok for his wife to be a non-dom really capable of speaking to Britain in the 2020s? Because these are going to be bloody hard times.”
It’s a good question. And it leads to the fourth big theme of this parable: which concerns the future.
With Sunak winged and possibly out of the picture completely, the race to succeed Johnson is both wide open – and non-existent.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, and a handful of others are gearing up to throw their respective hats in the ring. But they must wait for that ring to be set up.
Denied the straightforward choice of Sunak–- who seemed to many of them the obvious, oven-ready contender – Tory MPs must now absorb the lessons of the local elections and decide whether to stick with Johnson or to chance their arm with someone relatively untested. To say the least, it is not an appetising choice.
As for Sunak himself: his most revealing act during the crisis was to move his family out of Downing Street on Sunday 10 April and into their Kensington townhouse.
All this, his camp insists, was planned long before the non-dom disclosure and reflects in part, the Sunaks’ plans for their children’s education.
But – again – the impression was inescapably one of a family bolting from an address it was learning to hate, and longing for the freedom of their real home, away from the backbiting and attacks and beefs.
Has Sunak lost his appetite for the top? It certainly mattered to him that his name was cleared in full – which is why, on the very day that he moved out of Downing Street, he asked the PM to open an inquiry into the whole business.
On Monday 11 April, the task was officially delegated to Lord Geidt, the independent advisor on ministers’ interests.
“Tonight Rishi Sunak has written to the prime minister asking for an independent investigation into whether he’s been fully transparent about his interests, saying he’s confident such a review will show he played by the rules.”News clip
Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Sixteen days later, he was officially cleared of all impropriety by the inquiry. There is no technical or official obstacle to Sunak carrying on as if business had gone back to normal.
Clearly, it hasn’t.
For a start, the hunt will now be on to dig up more hidden or embarrassing details about his family’s financial past.
We know, for instance, that he was a director of his wife’s company Catamaran until the eve of the 2015 general election. But is there anything else that has yet to be disclosed?
This avenue of inquiry has been left wide open thanks to the chancellor’s poor political judgement. And – not for nothing – he has annoyed his cabinet colleagues by exposing their financial affairs to comparable scrutiny.
At last count, only three of 22 cabinet ministers – Kwasi Kwarteng, Ben Wallace and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – have confirmed that they and their immediate families do not use tax havens or claim non-dom status.
Nadhim Zahawi and Environment Secretary George Eustice have made more limited declarations, to the effect that they do not make use of this status.
The real question is this: in boxing parlance, does Sunak have a glass jaw? Can he take a punch and get off the canvas?
He has, after all, been the golden boy since he grew up in Southampton, became head boy at one of the nation’s great public schools, scooped up a First at Oxford, achieved dazzling success in the financial sector and then rose with astonishing speed to occupy one of the great offices of state before his 40th birthday.
It was all going to plan. But as Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Perhaps the greatest punch of all was the fixed penalty notice that he received from the police on Tuesday 12 April for briefly attending the prime minister’s birthday party in the cabinet room on 19 June 2020.
So, of course, did Johnson and his wife, Carrie. But it felt to the PM’s team that the chancellor had finally been dragged down from the moral high ground. This, as one MP puts it, was “levelling down in action”.
Speaking at Chequers just after 6pm, Johnson issued an immediate apology.
Sunak, meanwhile, was both furious and dismayed by the Met’s verdict and the £50 penalty, which seemed to tarnish even more seriously one of his supposed qualifications for the top job – namely that he had the integrity that Johnson lacked.
Now it seemed that, in a mere 20 days, that claim to integrity had shattered, a victim of the chancellor’s basic political immaturity.
He dithered for two hours after Johnson’s words to camera, wondering again whether he should quit, urged by the party machine not to take a step that would now be seen as an act of disloyalty rather than principle; and one that would make the PM’s position very difficult without delivering the chancellor much by way of a reprieve.
He was, he wearily concluded, trapped – at least for the time being. Just after 8pm – six hours after his fine had been revealed – he finally issued a statement, offering an “an unreserved apology” and declaring that he understood that “for figures in public office, the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence. I respect the decision that has been made and have paid the fine.”
Every one of those words was surely a paper cut to Sunak’s soul, an admission not only of culpability but of political paralysis.
The prime minister has recovered from more disasters than he can list. However great his personal and political flaws – and, boy, are they great – he is not brittle.
What about his chancellor? Is the engine of his ambition and his desire to reach the top enough to get him through this crisis of confidence? Nobody has ever accused him of being a visionary. Does he, in fact, have a private dream up his sleeve for the future of the country that will inspire him to keep going.
On Thursday 12 May he will turn 42. This time last year, the country was still on the road-map out of lockdown, about to mark Step 3 of the relaxation of the rules, and Sunak was still riding high. His 41st birthday was a moment of strength and shining promise.
These days, we’re allowed to have parties again without the police getting involved.
However he celebrates, the chancellor is bound to reflect ruefully upon the difference a year can make and how viciously the wheel of fortune turns, even in the lives of the most gilded.
What better moment, then, for Rishi Sunak to decide what forms of riches and rewards he really wants out of life – and, more to the point, the price he is truly willing to pay.
How we got here
Since he succeeded William Hague as Conservative MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire in 2015, Rishi Sunak has been the golden boy of Tory politics: popular, competent, widely regarded as the nicest guy in the Brexit gang, and the chancellor who splashed out hundreds of billions on rescue schemes during the pandemic.
In the eyes of many Tories, the high-velocity rise of “Dishy Rishi” to Number 10 was unstoppable. Until, that is, his Spring Statement on 23 March proved to be a serious political dud – and his life was suddenly engulfed by a series of disclosures about his family’s financial affairs. How did all go so wrong so quickly for this modern-day Icarus? Matthew d’Ancona
- Ben Judah’s Tatler profile of Sunak from July 2020 asks whether the chancellor has risen too far, too fast.
- Back at the start of the pandemic, George Parker and Sebastian Payne examined how Sunak took centre stage, in the FT
- The original report from Juliette Garside in the Guardian explains Rishi Sunak’s family’s wealth, and how it hasn’t been declared in ministerial register. The story was covered internationally too.
- Last month, John Elledge warned in the New Statesman that no one should have been taken in by “Dishy Rishi”.
The two Rishi Sunaks
This week’s Spending Review will reveal a chancellor torn between a yearning to balance the books and the needs of a new era
Spoken by Rishi, scripted by Boris
A former Number 10 speechwriter assesses the chancellor’s Budget rhetoric, and finds a philosophical mess reflecting Sunak’s overriding need to placate Johnson
Social care is only the start of Rishi Sunak’s problems
The row over paying for social care with national insurance increases foreshadows a daunting series of questions the chancellor must answer before this autumn’s spending review
Who is Rishi Sunak?
He’s been the no-nonsense Chancellor who’s not afraid to make tough decisions, but can he restore the reputation of the Tories and the office of No.10?
The man at No. 11
Conservative leaders have traditionally been in favour of low taxes and spending – but not Boris Johnson. How will he and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak sort out their differences?
What Sunak should do now
Britain’s finance minister has been running behind the pandemic. Here’s how he can get ahead
The hopeful Chancellor
Rishi Sunak is diligent and decent, but is he the man for the job of saving the British economy?