“You’re stinking rich, right?” Piers Morgan put to Rishi Sunak in an interview on 2 February. Looking confused, Sunak mumbled: “Well, most people would consider that I am financially fortunate, yes.” Sunak dismissed any further such questions, asking people to judge him on his actions, “not how much is in my bank account”.
On the same day, the New Statesman reported that Sunak is the least popular prime minister in recent history. According to the Guardian Sunak’s biggest problem is that most people think he is out of touch, and “his wealth means he cannot understand voters’ concerns”.
The Tories have long faced accusations of being the party of the privileged. David Cameron was too wealthy to understand Britain’s problems, his rivals said. His education at Eton and Oxford were often cited, along with his multimillion-pound net worth. The public knew, but many didn’t care, or at least didn’t care enough to prevent his ascent to power and the resulting 13 years of Conservative governance.
Being rich isn’t necessarily a turn off for voters – why would it be? It can easily be framed as work ethic and grit. For some, it can be aspirational. And, as the old saying goes, a certain amount of wealth may help them become incorruptible. But if Sunak is striking a different chord with voters, the question is why.
First, there are the facts: Sunak’s wealth is extraordinary. He is the first front-line politician to be included in the Sunday Times Rich List. He and his wife’s net worth is somewhere around £730m. They have a weekend home with a pool. He wears £95 designer flip flops and flaunts his smart coffee mug with temperature control – a device many of us never knew we needed.
Then, there are the eye-rolling encounters. Sunak’s cringe-inducing conversation with a homeless man about financial services, and his extravagant use of a private jet to take him from London to Leeds have brought into question how much Sunak has in common with his fellow man. Sometimes, he just can’t help but look out of touch.
But there is more. Sunak’s premiership is already marred by scandal, with multiple skeletons falling out of multiple closets. His predecessor, Deputy Prime Minister, Home Secretary and party chairman have all been embroiled in scandal, some financial, some regarding their conduct. For the public, there is one bitter takeaway: the Tory party seems to believe itself to be an exceptional elite.
And then there are widening economic inequalities and the cost of living, which top the list of voter priorities. The wealthiest are likely to see their incomes rise by 4 per cent between 2021-22 and 2023-24, while the average family’s income will drop by 7 per cent drop. On the day of the Piers Morgan interview, BBC News had three leading headlines: rising interest rates; British Gas breaking into vulnerable customer’s homes to fit pre-payment meters; and the energy company Shell announcing record-breaking profits of £32.2bn. The energy giant paid just £109m in UK tax last year. Loopholes in Sunak’s windfall tax allowed it to avoid paying more, while much of the country’s workforce takes to the streets to demand higher pay to cover heating bills.
Being wealthy doesn’t necessarily matter for a prime minister, but it can prove tricky to navigate when the rich only get richer and the poor get pre-payment meters.