OCTOBER 24, 2022
LONDON — Rishi Sunak is one of the wealthiest people in Britain and will soon be the most powerful when he becomes prime minister. This may be the first time in history that the residents of Downing Street are richer than those of Buckingham Palace.
Brits are used to being ruled by elites — Boris Johnson was about as elite as they come — but Sunak is not just rich, he is super rich, which has prompted some to ask whether his vast fortune makes him too rich to be prime minister.
His backers, however, say it is precisely his background as chancellor and the years spent making money that qualify him to lead a deeply damaged nation during these economically tumultuous times.
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Sunak, a former banker, and his wife, Indian tech heiress Akshata Murty, have an estimated fortune of about 730 million pounds ($830 million), according to the Sunday Times Rich List. On this year’s list, published before her death, Queen Elizabeth II was estimated to have about 370 million pounds ($420 million) by comparison.
The couple’s money comes primarily from Murty’s stake in her father’s company, Infosys. She also owns start-up incubator Catamaran Ventures UK and has shares in a half dozen or so other companies. The couple have at least three homes in Britain, as well as a Santa Monica, Calif., property valued at around $6 million.
According to the Guardian, the Sunak family — they have two daughters, Krishna and Anoushka — spend the week in their five-bedroom house in west London and weekends in North Yorkshire at a Georgian manor house. The paper said it has been “transformed into something of a wellness retreat with an indoor swimming pool, gym, yoga studio, hot tub and tennis court.”
Does any of that matter to voters?
“It’s not binary,” said Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “The British as a whole don’t think that being wealthy is a bad or disqualifying thing. There are lots of very wealthy individuals who are very popular with the public.
“People do care about wealthy people fixing the rules for themselves. It’s non-dom status for your wife while you are the chancellor, it’s green cards in the U.S. in case things go south, it’s family tax numbers being massaged down. People are like, ‘Well, I don’t mind so long as you pay your taxes, but it really annoys me if you don’t,’ ” he said.
Earlier this year, Sunak’s wife was at the center of a tax scandal after it emerged that she had been filing in the United Kingdom as a “non-domiciled” resident, which allowed her to avoid paying British taxes on the substantial income she earned abroad. The family had been living at 10 Downing Street, in the apartment designated for Britain’s finance minister (the living quarters are smaller than 11 Downing Street, where prime minsters generally prefer to live). Moving vans arrived when the scandal was still simmering.
It also came out around the same time that Sunak had held a U.S. green card while he was chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister. His spokesman said he returned it last year.
A survey published Monday asked people to describe Sunak in a single word. One in particular stands out in the cloud: rich.
Sunak’s critics have sought to play up his privileged upbringing. They point out that he attended the 600-year-old Winchester College, where annual fees for those who board, like he did, today exceed $52,000.
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In the last leadership election this summer, they circulated a video clip from a 2007 BBC documentary in which he suggests he doesn’t have any “working-class friends.”
He was also attacked for giving a speech to grass-roots Conservative Party members this summer where he said that, as chancellor, he tried to reverse funding formulas “that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas” so as to help wealthier towns.
During these troubled times of high energy prices and runaway inflation, however, Sunak’s supporters counter that his background — not his wealth, but his own experience in finance and at the treasury — make him the right man for the job right now.
Before becoming a lawmaker — only seven years ago, a rapid ascent in British political terms — Sunak worked as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager. He most recently served in government as chancellor, where he became hugely popular as he dished out money during the pandemic.
He has consistently polled better than any of his contenders in this leadership race on economic competence. In the last race against Liz Truss, Sunak said that Truss’s plans were based on “fantasy” economics — a pronouncement that proved prescient when her “mini-budget” caused widespread turmoil in the markets.
Jeremy Hunt, the British chancellor who will be hoping to keep his job, has come out in support of Sunak. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said the British people were looking for someone who could handle the crisis.
“Our public finances, market credibility and international reputation have taken a serious blow. To restore stability and confidence, we need a leader who can be trusted to make difficult choices,” he wrote. “We also need someone who can explain those choices to members of the public who are worried about jobs, mortgages and public services. We have a leader who can do just that in Rishi Sunak.”
The matter of his wealth, however, could still be a vulnerability. Steven Fielding, a politics professor at the University of Nottingham, said that with Sunak emerging victorious, the opposition Labour Party will probably try to score points on Sunak for being “out of touch,” like they did earlier in the year, when in a discussion about rising prices for foodstuffs, he described all the “different breads in my house.”
And given the economic head winds, the cost of living crisis is expected to get a lot worse for millions of Brits, who are already feeling the squeeze.
Fielding also said that Truss’s disastrous economic policy, which saw the market swiftly reject her plans for unfunded tax cuts, meant that the next leader’s policies will “basically be a prisoner of Liz Truss and the consequences of Liz Truss.”