LONDON – Breakfast starts at 8 am and guests are helped with croissants and juice before the sleek figure of Rishi Sunak, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, moves through the crowded, oak-paneled dining room of his official London home. 11 Downing Street.
For Mr Sunak, meetings with groups of Conservative MPs helped him reach out and build a network of support in parliament. For lawmakers, this is a chance to meet someone whom many expect to one day move to the neighborhood – to number 10, the prime minister’s home.
“Rishi Sunak has strengths that the prime minister so clearly lacks, not only basic competence but also an understanding of the details,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, and no one has made it so obvious , in your face, a social media campaign like Rishi Sunak. “
It seems to work. A recent poll of party members on the ConservativeHome website put Mr Sunak, 40, easily at the top of the cabinet’s satisfaction rankings, while Mr Johnson was almost at the bottom of the list.
Contrary to a survey conducted by Professor Bale last December, in which Conservative Party members were asked who would take office, Mr Johnson resigned. “Only five out of 1191 named Rishi Sunak,” he said, “and I’m not sure they all spelled his name correctly.”
When he was ejected to work in February, after two years as a minister – including six months in the Finance Ministry – Mr Sunak was firmly in the shadow of Mr Johnson, who had just won a landslide election victory.
But while Mr Johnson grazed during the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Sunak was a saint of calm and competence, quickly intervening to spend billions of pounds on supportive jobs as the economy went into free fall. With the new restrictions coming into force in some parts of the country, Mr Sunak announced new state support for the affected areas and on Monday he gave a smooth defense of his latest measures at a press conference with Mr Johnson.
Perhaps sensibly, given the speculation about his ambitions, Mr Sunak tried to burst his own bubble when the Conservative Party recently held its party conference in practice.
In a surprisingly short speech, he praised Mr Johnson and warned that awkward economic elections were imminent. The subconscious message seemed to be, “You may like me a little less when all that money needs to be returned.”
But at the moment they like him very much and his appeal among non-partisan Britons was broadcast through glossy social media posts on Instagram and Twitter, created around “Brand Rishi”. The Allies insist Mr Sunak is simply using digital media techniques to communicate more effectively, rather than promoting his ambitions.
However, his posts stand out from the grim detritus of political advertising. They often present a stylish photo of the chancellor supporting politics with his distinctive signature, more like a sports celebrity can promote an expensive fitness accessory.
This was probably not what Mr Johnson expected when he promoted Mr Sunak to take over from Sajid Javid, the former chancellor who resigned after refusing to accept curbs from his right to hire his own advisers. Mr Sunak agreed, leading some to speculate that he would be more lenient.
In Britain, the relationship between the prime minister and the chancellor – although the central center of government – is often associated with rivalry and tension. The idea in February was to ensure that there was a center of power over economic policy: in № 10.
But few prime ministers could afford to fire two chancellors, so Mr Johnson risked appointing someone as skilled and diligent as Mr Sunak.
Mr. Sunak is not only a smooth communicator, but with his Indian heritage he is a walking success story of modern multiracial Britain.
His Punjab grandparents came to England from British colonial East Africa in the 1960s. As a teenager, he said he had been racist. “He was stabbing, I still remember, it burned in my memory,” he told the BBC, describing how he was abused in a restaurant.
But while Mr Javid, his predecessor, was the son of a bus driver from Pakistan, Mr Sunak’s father was a doctor and his mother ran a pharmacy. Together, they earned enough to send him to an elite private school, Winchester College.
Without this expensive education, Mr. Sunak could still have reached Oxford University (he graduated with honors). But his education seems to have helped inspire confidence and social relief, which allowed him to move effortlessly through the ranks of the Conservative Party.
Before embarking on a serious political career, Mr. Sunak also won an MBA at Stanford University, where he met his future wife, Akshata Murtie, the daughter of one of India’s richest men, billionaire Narayana Murtie, co-founder of Infosys, an IT giant. .
Mr Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds before being elected to Parliament in 2015. In a referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016, he voted to leave.
The decision hastened his rise in the ranks, although some staunch Brexit supporters say they suspect it is a tactical move and believe he is pressuring Mr Johnson to trade with the European Union.
One of Mr Sunak’s few political vulnerabilities is his wealth. There was a prickly comment when he was photographed with a $ 235 “smart cup” that maintains coffee or tea with an accurate drinking temperature for up to three hours, and when he described a workout on an exercise bike that retails about 10 times that amount. .
But Mr Sunak is usually good at avoiding blunders and is well involved in the media world. He was the best man at the wedding of school friend James Forsythe and Allegra Stratton. Mr. Forsythe is the political editor of the conservative weekly Spectator, and Ms. Stratton is a former journalist and television cameraman. She is currently appointed by Mr Sunak as an adviser, but is expected to become Mr Johnson’s spokesperson and will hold televised press conferences.
Mr Sunak’s allies see this as an illustration of the close ties between Downing Street’s neighbors. But while the relationship looks good at the moment, tension has emerged. Last month, Mr Sunak took steps to protect the economy by tackling many lock restrictions proposed by government advisers.
These differences are likely to increase.
One day Britain will have to start paying off its huge pile of debt. Mr Johnson neither wants to return to austerity nor raise taxes, but some decisions cannot be postponed indefinitely.
Sofia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group and a contributor to the London School of Economics, said: “The Chancellor is in a privileged position to play Santa Claus throughout the pandemic, one of the few politicians who brings gifts instead of taking them away. “
“Tax increases are on the horizon,” she added, “and soon he will have to make tough decisions about which industries to support and which parts of the electorate to protect against the worst economic blow of the pandemic.”
If unemployment rises to levels not seen since the 1980s, Mr Sunak will certainly take at least some of the blame.
But, Ms. Gaston noted, he has already proven to be an exceptional communicator and a consultative and pragmatic leader. “If his brand can remain strong for the next six months of economic doom and gloom, there can be no limits to the scope of his political ambitions,” she said.
So far, Mr Sunak has successfully distanced himself from the competence issues gathered around Mr Johnson and much of his cabinet.
He has also avoided cultural wars, which are regularly fueled by some vigilant, pro-Brexit advisers to Mr Johnson, who never seem happier than when they attack the pillars of the establishment.
This makes him neatly positioned as a representative of a more competent and inclusive type of policy, an enticing package if a vacancy appears next to Downing Street.
“In his place, you can’t afford to look too impatient,” said Professor Bale of Queen Mary University in London. “But, on the other hand, you can’t afford to miss your moment when it comes.”