Rishi Sunak has become the first major politician to make it into the annual Sunday Times rich list. It is the dream story for parts of the left that are fond of attacking Conservative politicians for being rich and “out of touch”.
However, in reality, the event is much less politically significant than a lot of people are sure to believe. No matter how many times it’s attempted, the result is always the same. Such stories might compound a negative impression that the public already has of a politician, but if they don’t view the politician negatively, then for the most part the it just doesn’t care.
Boris Johnson is the most obvious case. He makes no pretence of being like you or me. He plays up to the Etonian toffery. Did that prevent him breaking through in parts of the country that haven’t voted Conservative since the 1980s, or even the 1930s? No.
In fact, in 2019 the Tories secured the support of more than 45 per cent of low-income voters, vs less than 31 per cent for Labour. Those voters aren’t idiots. They didn’t think they were voting for “people like them”. They thought they were voting for people who would deliver for them.
It’s the same story with the Chancellor. During the pandemic, when he was living out his pledge to do “whatever it takes”, his opponents tried to make a fuss out of such trivialities as his expensive coffee mug. The voters, however, did not give a hoot. Most of them have sufficiently sophisticated reasoning to distinguish between a politician’s personal circumstances and what he or she is doing for them.
It was only when Sunak turned the taps off that the electorate turned against him, and it was then that stories about his personal wealth and his tax affairs really started to bite. They offer an awful contrast with what is widely perceived to be an inadequate response to the cost-of-living crisis.
But while that framing is politically helpful, the Chancellor’s opponents should remember that it is just that: helpful context for the real attack, which is or ought to be on the government’s actual policy programme. That means resisting the urge to bash Sunak just for being rich. The sort of voter who won’t vote for a rich man on principle has not and will never back the Tories, as millions of ex-Labour voters did at the last election.
And if the Prime Minister was to pull his finger out and actually deliver a big, well-targeted programme of support for people struggling with the cost of living, those voters would go right back to not caring about how he and his cabinet dispose of their millions. (So far, it has to be said, Johnson shows no sign of doing that – the scale of the Conservatives’ complacency is remarkable).
If voters do kick the Tories out at the next election, it won’t be because the Chancellor made the rich list, but because Red Wall MPs didn’t, as Christian Wakeford complained in defecting to Labour this January, have anything to put on their leaflets.