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25 October 2023

The stories Rishi Sunak cannot tell

The Prime Minister’s first year in office was defined by his silences.

By Will Lloyd

Once upon a time in Tanganyika, Sraksha was born in a hut. The country was lion-haunted. Her family were Hindu migrants from the Punjab. She entered an arranged marriage as a teenager. By the time she had three children she decided to move to Britain. She sold her wedding jewelry, bought a one-way ticket in 1966, and left her husband and children behind.

Usha, her daughter, joined her in 1967. She graduated as a pharmacist from Aston University in 1972. Usha met Yashvir a few years later, and they were married in July 1977 at a temple in Leicester. Their first child, Rishi, was born in Southampton General Hospital on 12 May 1980. As of today he has been Prime Minister for a year.

If the only thing you knew about modern Britain was that narrative you might think this was a country that worked. No other story in British politics has this geographical sweep, these historical ironies, or produces such a vindication of hard work, decent values and the sky-wide possibilities of meritocracy.

Except it’s not a story the Prime Minister enjoys telling. He does not seem to want to make people feel like this is a country that works. Instead Sunak has allowed a fatal narrative to build around him: out of touch, posh, privileged. It’s nonsense. Sunak is a scholarship boy whose grandmother was born in an East African hut.

The best autobiography you will get from Sunak is this, from conference earlier this month: “I am proud to be the first British Asian prime minister, but you know what… I’m even prouder that it’s just not a big deal.” He would rather talk about potholes, and his detailed plans to ban things.

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When Sunak arrived in New Delhi a few weeks ago for a G20 summit, more than 75 years after the partition of the Raj, it might have been a big deal. It should have been on the front page of the New York Times. Sunak’s jet should have touched down, LIVE on CNN. How many summersaults of history had it taken for Britain and India to arrive at this moment? But there was just… silence.

Perhaps the British had forgotten their history in the subcontinent. (In truth there was a great deal to forget.) Their Prime Minister, so uniquely placed to do so, could not be bothered to remind them of it. He merely told journalists that he was “excited to be back”.

[See also: The Tories should prepare for worse]

If he understood the deeper resonances Sunak never acted like he did. If he thought being its “son-in-law” would help Britain secure a trade partnership with India, he was wrong. The symbolism, and the trade deal, drifted away.

Sunak has been in Downing Street for a year. He reportedly calls his office there the “bunker”. A revealing word. Generalíssimo Rishi, buried away in the ground, being fed appalling news from the front lines. Another by-election, another sex case MP imploding, a whole book from Nadine Dorries to come.

For months, no reporting on the Prime Minister has been complete without words appearing like “scratchy”, “irritable”, “frustrated”, “bruised”. Sunak is beginning to mirror the pensioners who make up his voting base.

He succeeded in the world by working hard. Sunak mastered the details. (He told somebody he was trying to win over recently that “I know more about ambulance stacks than anyone else who has done this job”.) He learned to be suave, and how to handle people.

In Michael Ashcroft’s weightless biography of Sunak, our hero is a schoolboy who was never put in detention, a hedge fund manager who never made a bad deal, and an MP who became chancellor without making any enemies. This is how meritocracy is supposed to function. You learn, you improve, you succeed. 

But being Prime Minister has proved to be something else. It’s brought out a pinched, flinty persona that was previously hidden. He grates when interviewed. Sunak mournfully told aides over the summer that he “doesn’t appear to be getting any credit from voters”. 

He did the work. He was the best performer in the room. Where was the applause? 

A source once told me – glowingly – that Sunak was the best prime minister since Blair. Serious, dedicated and fantastically knowledgeable. Yet after a year the politician Sunak most resembles is Richard Nixon. A man with obscure origins; an abstemious and unloved grinder who failed to understand that hard work doesn’t guarantee a win.

It is possible to imagine Sunak chippily signing off from politics in the same way Nixon did, following his loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial election. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

There is no “Sunakism” to kick around and there never will be. There are only painful counterpoints. Sunak is a studious mute in an era defined by splenetic, work-shy demagogues. The first millennial prime minister desperately attempting to whip up a party membership of decaying baby boomers. An institution man – Winchester, Oxford, Goldman Sachs, Stanford, the Conservative Party – in an age of institutional collapse.

He is not failing because his policies are wrong. This stellar product of British institutions is failing because he cannot comprehend why these institutions are in free fall. His own party now heaves with ideologues who have nothing but contempt for those same institutions. His executive power is checked by 60 of his own MPs who demand tax cuts. The manner in which he seized that power has left him isolated from the membership of his party.

Sunak is young, but he seems old. It’s an ancient cliché: a year is a long time in politics.

[See also: Is Rishi Sunak’s leadership in danger?]

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