Rishi Sunak: In search of the common man

Sunday National, 3rd April 2022.

My sister has a phrase for it: “too posh to function.” The line always runs through my head, whenever the chancellor of the exchequer embarks on one of his public relations campaigns, trying to sell his economic policies as populist interventions, and himself as a popular successor to Boris Johnson.

Rishi Sunak isn’t without friends in this endeavour. As an occasional paper reviewer on Radio Scotland on the weekends, it’s always amusing to read the Tory press’s latest attempts to habilitate the Richmond MP as just an ordinary guy. The Daily Mail’s efforts are, I admit, my favourite. They specialise in the vaseline-lensed exclusive interview, preferably with domestic shots, and a cute dog photo thrown in.

We’re supposed to be surprised, I suppose, by quotidian details about the chancellor’s life. He gets up in the morning! He drinks tea! Yorkshire tea! From a mug! He has photographs of his family on his desk! (And, perhaps more disturbingly, a photograph of Nigel Lawson on his wall). He apparently doesn’t attend as many of his kids’ school events as he’d like – just like an ordinary father wouldn’t. The mind boggles.

I suppose all this is meant to communicate the idea that the 41-year-old politician – who made flipping great wadges of cash in that most loveable and socially-useful of professions, the hedge fund manager –  is just an ordinary fellow. But he isn’t, and watching his attempts at ordinariness are one of the few consistently amusing performances we’ve seen in British politics of late.

The sterling efforts of the Mail and Telegraph to humanise Rishi Sunak have fallen on hard times, in part because of the awkwardness of the central performer, and partly because of increased public awareness of the gap separating the chancellor’s domestic circumstances and those experienced by the overwhelming majority of the electorate.

Some uncontrollably rich people are adept at passing themselves off as ordinary specimens of humanity. Sunak’s performance needs serious work. Promoting his “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign in the summer of 2020, Sunak decided to have himself photographed wandering around Wagamama brandishing two katsu curries. What fun! The chancellor pretending to be a waiter. What next?

I suppose this kind of photoshoot is meant to make you think Sunak is unpretentious and game.  He certainly looked as if he was enjoying himself. But the optics struck me as pretty ghastly. A millionaire MP having a lark by pretending to be a worker who probably earns less than a tenner an hour? Is that really the picture you’re wanting to convey?

In the last two weeks, the tensions have grown. Asked what price hikes he’s seen at his local supermarket, Sunak was clearly stumped. Instead of responding honestly – “I’m chancellor of the frigging exchequer, do you seriously think I do the big weekly shop at Asda?” – Sunak was reduced to gibbering about the many breads enjoyed by his extended household and the rising costs of “a Hovis seeded thing.” The linseed inflation is real, comrades.

And which ordinary politician has not appropriated a stranger’s high street hatchback for a photoshoot instead of filling one of his own fleet of embarrassingly blingy cars with petrol? One does like one’s perfidy to be subtle.

These efforts to transmute Sunak into the common man are more redolent of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch than the idea the socially-awkward Sunak really is someone who is down with the kids. And the phrase “down with the kids” is something you can imagine our prematurely middle-aged chancellor saying, as he laughed nervously and rocked on the balls of his feet, hoping you won’t ask him how many miles to the gallon he gets from his Volkswagen Golf, and what the going rate is for a Seed Sensations Original.

The rise of Brand Rishi during the pandemic was among the more baffling ascents in recent political history. He benefited, I suppose, from a stark contrast with his Prime Minister. Sunak can wear a suit without looking like he’s spilled soup down himself, or has hastily redressed after an afternoon assignation. He clearly has the exclusive use of a comb.

In contrast with Boris Johnson, who struggles to pull a consistently serious expression even when talking about human tragedy and loss of life – Sunak can deliver the serious lines seriously. Indeed, Sunak has no appreciable sense of humour, but seems aware a sense of humour is an important thing to appear to have, so does his best to chortle along at socially appropriate moments. All of which only adds to the sense of a political personality doing its best to present as likeable and relatable, while inwardly (and increasingly outwardly) dying of social anxiety.

And why not? Because the truth is Sunak operates on a different economic to almost everyone in this country. The chancellor has a personal fortune of over £200 million. He partly accrued this wealth at Goldman Sachs before the 2008 financial crash, right at the heart of vampire squid capitalism. His wife is reportedly more minted than the monarch. Beyond his official pied-à-terre in Downing Street, Sunak can choose from rooms in a Kensington townhouse worth at least £7 million, his £1.5m country manor in Kirby Sigston in Yorkshire, another flat in west London, or his holiday apartment in Santa Monica, California.

It is around this point that a Tory politician should pop up, and give me some jaw about the “politics of envy” and the fact we should all be grateful that we live in a country where it is possible for wildly ambitious people to live out their political dreams.

My response would be simple: it matters who takes economic decisions, because we learn from our experiences. If your experiences are as narrow as Sunak’s seem, then that is bound to inform your political choices and understanding of the economic realities other people have to deal with. It isn’t really Sunak’s gawky manner but his outlook which is in question.

His apparent lack of social imagination has been perhaps most powerfully reflected in recent decisions on universal credit. In March 2020, the UK government introduced a £20 a week uplift to the benefit to address the financial hardship caused by the pandemic. This had a value of around £1,040 a year. Sunak scrapped the uplift in October 2021, a decision defended by one Tory MP on the basis that “I think there are people that quite like getting the extra £20 but maybe they don’t need it.”

The assumption that twenty quid is pocket change illustrates, in a nutshell, the gulf separating how the comparative well off and the profoundly poor experience our economy. There are two Britains: one that is currently experiencing an excruciating cost of living crisis, and another that is doing just fine thank you. And we are governed, almost entirely, by people in the latter camp. “I’m alright Jack” remains one of the most potent ideas in British politics.

For some, £20 a week is a substantial amount of money, with implications for basic choices about how to live, whether to turn the heating on, even whether to eat. But for many others – their disposable income is precisely that – disposable. £20 is lunch out, and the cash leaves their bank accounts without touching the sides.

It was George Osborne who appropriated the language of a “national living wage” in his 2015 budget, deftly transforming a bare minimum income into something which sounded much more aspirational. The national living wage increased by 6.6% to £9.50 for workers aged over 23 this week. This increase is likely to affect around two and a half million people across the UK. But with inflation running high, cost of living increases will gobble up the uplift. Real terms wages will fall.

The concept of “fuel stress” is defined as spending 10% or more on your energy bills after your housing costs in rent or mortgage. Figures from the Resolution Foundation show that households experiencing “fuel stress” will double from 2.5 to 5 million this week, with another 2.5 million households at risk of feeling the same pinch come winter. 37% of the poorest people in society were already experiencing fuel stress before this week’s energy hikes. Now, 62% of these households are facing crisis, rising to 80% of the poorest households come winter.

For all of his propaganda shoots and cynical attempts to curate his personal political brand, there’s no sign this chancellor understands the magnitude of what this means for people, or their children.

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