Fears have been raised that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is close to the edge as he works 18-hour days battling the Covid crisis
When billionaire tech tycoon’s daughter Akshata Murthy first told her father of her plans to marry, his reaction was typically paternal. ‘When a daughter gets married, a father has mixed feelings,’ Narayana Murthy, sometimes known as ‘the Bill Gates of India‘, wrote back to her. He admitted to a twinge of jealousy at having to share her with a ‘smart, confident younger man’.
But Narayana was to change his opinion rapidly after meeting his future son-in-law, a charismatic 29-year-old with degrees from Oxford and Stanford Business School, then working for arguably the UK’s best-performing hedge fund.
In an open letter to his daughter – whose personal share in her father’s global IT company Infosys is worth a reported £230 million – he was gushing about Rishi Sunak. ‘I found him to be all that you had described him to be – brilliant, handsome, and most importantly, honest,’ he wrote. ‘I understand why you let your heart be stolen. It was then that I reconciled to sharing your affections with him.’
Sunak and Akshata were married three months later, in November 2009, basing themselves in California, where they had met as students and still own a £5.5 million penthouse. According to the developer’s website, the property represented ‘the epitome of urban Santa Monica beach living’ with ‘stunning views of the Santa Monica Mountains’ and where you ‘wake up to the sound of waves crashing against the shore’.
Narayana’s admiration for his son-in-law seems to be a feeling shared almost universally by those who meet the Chancellor, a man whose rapid ascent has seen his transformation from virtual unknown a year ago to the political celebrity of 2020.
‘He’s got everything for the makings of a future PM,’ says Gary Porter, former chairman of the Local Government Association. ‘He’s a really good people person; really switched on and properly clever. He gets stuff quickly, he’s got political instinct. You’d struggle to find anybody who’s got what he’s got – it’s the complete package.’
‘It’s a remarkable talent in politics, seemingly to have no enemies, and not even people who seem to be that jealous,’ says one who knows him well.
Mr Sunak has barely taken any time off work since the pandemic. Pictured: Rishi Sunak with wife Akshata and daughters Krishna and Anoushka
Being seen as a star ‘generally puts noses out of joint in the parliamentary party,’ says another well-placed source. ‘But it’s just very difficult to dislike him. He’s a very easy-going, humble kind of guy.’
Sunak’s wife Akshata, too, has earned widespread respect. ‘She is a brilliant woman in her own right,’ says William Hague, Rishi’s predecessor as MP for the Yorkshire seat of Richmond. ‘Sometimes with people’s partners, in politics, you find they say ‘I’m not doing this; I’m not doing that’, but she was very, very supportive of his choice of career.’
In 2014, fired with a determination to make the world a better place, Sunak turned his back on his successful financial career and set his sights on Westminster. The following year, he won the safe Tory seat of Richmond with a 19,550 majority. Five brief years later he was Chancellor, bearing a burden of responsibility the like of which few of his predecessors had ever faced, as the arrival of Covid-19 saw Britain confront its biggest peacetime crisis.
Whatever plans Rishi Sunak may have had for his 40th birthday in May, it is unlikely they included giving the Commons an update on the country’s financial situation at the height of a global pandemic. His message to MPs that day was one many had been hoping to hear: that his job retention, or furlough scheme – set up in March at the start of the coronavirus crisis – would be extended until the autumn, when it would be gradually phased out.
Shortly afterwards it was revealed that one beneficiary of the scheme had been Infosys, the company set up by Sunak’s father-in-law, Narayana Murthy, which furloughed three per cent of its estimated 10,000 UK workforce.
What was not reported at the time, however, was that there was another bailout beneficiary even closer to home: namely, Akshata Murthy, the Chancellor’s wife.
In an interest that has not been made public in Sunak’s declaration of interests under the Ministerial Code, his wife is a director of the holding company for an exclusive gentlemen’s outfitter whose products include £2,500 silk dressing gowns. New & Lingwood is a quintessential English brand that investors hope might catch on in America. The flagship London store is just off Piccadilly and it is an official outfitter to Eton College.
Following the lockdown, New & Lingwood developed a range of luxury silk face masks retailing at £30 each. Its flamboyant silk housecoats, designed for clientele keen to make a statement in the bedroom, start at £1,250 without a lining. A top-of-the-range lined version costs £2,500 (ironically, the maximum amount of money millions of furloughed workers were able to earn per month under Sunak’s coronavirus job retention scheme).
Those with deeper pockets could buy an ‘antique shawl lined silk’ dressing gown – ‘in rich scarlet, blue and gold jacquard’ – for £2,750. Whether Sunak himself has any of these items is unclear, but he has hitherto been silent about his wife’s links with the firm.
Under the Ministerial Code, Ministers have a responsibility to list ‘interests of [a] spouse, partner or close family member’ which might reasonably be perceived to be directly relevant to the Minister’s public duties’.
Ministers must decide how far his or her responsibility extends, but given the range of those duties, it would be prudent for a Chancellor, particularly one at the heart of handing out money to save the economy, to take a very broad view of what needs to be disclosed.
Sunak’s entry to the register makes no mention of his wife’s role as one of six directors of N&L Acquisitions, the holding company of which New & Lingwood International is a subsidiary.
According to Companies House records, she was appointed to the position in June 2017, about 18 months after the tailoring company was sold to New York-based investors Pop Capital. A customer who visited the London store in June was told that staff had been furloughed during the lockdown, suggesting the company benefited directly from the Chancellor’s job support scheme.
Even before the pandemic, New & Lingwood was struggling. According to publicly available accounts, in 2018 it had just £202,000 in the bank, a figure that fell to £63,000 last year. At the time of writing, this part of the company – which has a complex structure involving at least two holding entities – had a negative value of about minus £1 million, relative to minus £58,000 the previous year.
The furlough scheme would, one imagines, have been a considerable relief to the directors, including Sunak’s wife.
In the register of ministerial interests, Sunak does declare his wife’s ownership of Catamaran Ventures, which he describes as a ‘venture capital investment company’. However, he does not list her directorship of another business, Digme Fitness, a gym chain with which she has been formally involved since spring 2017 and which caters primarily to young professionals in Central London, with branches in Moorgate, Bank and Fitzrovia. Businesses in these parts of the capital have been among the hardest hit in the country by coronavirus. Just days before the Government announced the reopening of gyms in July, directors of Digme Fitness held a crisis meeting, according to a senior source at the company.
For the same reason, Sunak ought to have also registered his wife’s interest in this company.
In a third undeclared interest, Akshata, along with her brother Rohan, is a director of a software development company called Soroco. It boasts of having a ‘global presence’, with offices in London, Bangalore, Boston, Seattle and New York. According to Companies House, Akshata and her brother both became directors of the business in October 2014. His occupation at that time is listed as ‘computer scientist’, while hers is listed as ‘none’.
The most recent set of accounts suggest that this company, too, is haemorrhaging cash: it appears to be more than $5 million in the red.
Omitting to declare one spousal interest is unfortunate; omitting to declare several borders on the careless.
One possible explanation for this unsatisfactory state of affairs is that Sunak did disclose all the relevant information to the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, as is permitted under the Ministerial Code, who decided it was not necessary to enter it on the public register.
An alternative explanation is that the so-called Propriety and Ethics Team at the Cabinet Office, which has the final say on what appears on the register, was made aware of the directorships but did not see fit to disclose them. However, this would seem inconsistent with the ‘safety first’ approach that has clearly been adopted in relation to other Government Ministers. In the section on relevant interests of a spouse, partner or close family member, many disclose interests that seem very tangential to their brief.
What can be said for sure is that since becoming Chancellor in February, Sunak has had bigger fish to fry, which may not be an excuse but would certainly be an explanation for what seems an uncharacteristic oversight or misjudgment.
Knowing Rishi Sunak, who is generally fastidious, there was inevitably an official explanation.
Yesterday, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests scrutinises all declarations and has confirmed that he is completely satisfied with the propriety of arrangements and that appropriate measures have been put in place where necessary to avoid any conflict of interest.’
That the coronavirus crisis has taken a toll on Sunak is without doubt. Indeed, so intensely did he work at the start of it that his staff became worried for his health.
‘The day before he announced the furlough scheme, one of our economic advisers put a sandwich on his desk and said ‘You must eat’, because he just wasn’t eating,’ says a Treasury source. ‘He was looking thin and faint.’
Another adviser says: ‘He has to be told almost every day to eat. Otherwise he’ll just work and work.’ An insider later revealed that Sunak sometimes goes without food deliberately, fasting on selected days from sunrise to sunset – not for religious reasons, but to ‘reset after the weekend’.
‘Rishi is feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders,’ said one colleague in early April. ‘He’s been working 18 hours a day for weeks. He’s physically and psychologically exhausted. But he’s always the one who says to people, ‘Come on, on to the next job.’ ‘
‘The guy has been a complete machine,’ says a Treasury adviser. ‘Everyone who works for him keeps telling him he needs to take a break. In the summer he took three days, nominally for a holiday, but even on those days he was doing his boxes, working. He’s definitely a bit greyer and has a more tired look about him than he used to.’
Sunak himself says that what he misses most, apart from his family, has been the gym. ‘I’m someone who normally goes to the gym a few times a week,’ he told Times Radio, ‘and that sadly has been missing from my life for the last few months, as well as not seeing my family really at all.’
In fact, he did manage to take steps to compensate for missing his usual fitness regime. A state- of-the-art, £2,000 exercise bike delivered to Downing Street was not destined for the PM, as some assumed, but for the Chancellor.
He has admitted he was tired, but acknowledged that he was far from alone.
‘Lots of people, not just in Government but up and down the country, have been working around the clock,’ Sunak has said. ‘Everyone is trying to do the best they can. That often requires just working very hard and it’s stressful because it’s very uncertain. The decisions you make have wide-ranging impact, and that weighs heavily.’
And yet throughout it all, Sunak’s public presentation has been continuously upbeat, with his Instagram account portraying him as what one admiring journalist has described as ‘the Disney prince version of a Tory MP’.
Interspersed among images from his daily routine are striking infographics promoting his latest policies. Some encapsulate complex schemes in a few words and an eye-catching font; others highlight Sunakian pronouncements, such as: ‘We want to look back on this time and remember how, in the face of a generation-defining moment, we undertook a collective national effort – and stood together. It’s on all of us.’
Each bears Sunak’s squiggly signature above the word ‘Chancellor’, like a stamp of quality assurance.
There is a good reason why Sunak’s social-media profile looks as though it is curated by a team of experts: it is.
The professional touch is down to Cassian (‘Cass’) Horowitz, son of the well-known author Anthony, who was hired as the Chancellor’s media special adviser in February at the age of 29.
Horowitz, who co-founded an agency specialising in ‘brand strategy, identity, packaging, content and digital advertising’, was brought in on the recommendation of Allegra Stratton, who worked with him on ITV’s Peston show.
Stratton was then recruited to Sunak’s team as director of strategic communications in April.
Though well qualified for such a role, it did not hurt that she already knew the Chancellor well, being the wife of his close friend James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator, who was best man at Sunak’s wedding.
Journalist Allegra Stratton was recruited to Sunak’s team as director of strategic communications in April
The pair not only ensured their boss was presented in the best possible light, but helped bring to life the multitude of announcements that poured from the Treasury.
Horowitz coined the name ‘bounce back’ loans for the fully guaranteed lending programme for small businesses, while Stratton dreamed up the phrase ‘Eat Out To Help Out’.
Their team also included a photographer and video crew to ensure suitable moments were captured for social-media-driven posterity.
For all the successes, their efforts produced the occasional mishap.
At the end of May, Sunak shared a story about the Nando’s chain reopening a number of its restaurants for takeaway and delivery with the comment: ‘The good news we’ve all been waiting for.’ It provoked a storm of protest to the effect that many people had more important things to worry about at that moment. A tweet from the Treasury account urging people to ‘grab a drink and raise a glass’ was deleted after a similar outcry.
The Chancellor’s aura of invincible competence had taken another small knock in May when he accidentally voted against the Government over post-Brexit food import standards. His office blamed ‘teething problems’ with Parliament’s new online voting system.
A further flurry occurred after Sunak was photographed working at his Treasury desk shortly before delivering his Summer Statement to Parliament. Perched next to his laptop was an Ember Travel Mug – a sleek, black, Bluetooth-enabled drinking vessel that allows owners to control the temperature of their coffee from an app on their phone – which retailed for a handsome £179.95. ‘The former investment banker is usually more careful not to flaunt how very rich he is,’ noted The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley.
Later in the month, eyebrows were raised at the juxtaposition of Sunak’s enthusiastic promotion of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme with the launch of a new Government drive to combat obesity. But these episodes barely dented Sunak’s reputation for polished presentation.
Beyond political pundits’ praise for his performance at the Dispatch Box, Downing Street press conferences and political interviews, GQ magazine featured the cut of his suits, admiring his ‘alchemic ability to transubstantiate a tailored garment’. It added: ‘Indeed, not since the days of Winston Churchill and latterly Michael Heseltine has a Conservative politician looked so good on the job.’
Brand Rishi had become a talking point in its own right.
Opinion polls have continued to find that, among voters, Sunak is by far the best-regarded member of the Government. He enjoys a reputation for competence and decency that is way beyond what most politicians can hope for.
But he knows better than anyone that this cannot last. Popularity is easy to achieve when you are depositing tens of billions of pounds in people’s bank accounts.
‘Wait until he has to start raising the money to pay it back,’ is the refrain of Westminster veterans. ‘We don’t know how he copes with unpopularity,’ says one former Minister. ‘He would be unique among Chancellors if he doesn’t have to work that out before too long.’
As the national focus of fear moves from health to the economy, the roles of good cop and bad cop will begin to be reversed. Sunak could become the face of recession rather than largesse. His presentational panache can only go so far in preventing this slump.
Indeed, the branding operation that has won plaudits and helped to get the Government’s message across could even begin to rankle with some of his colleagues.
Two decades ago, the Tory grandee Michael Ancram effectively torpedoed Michael Portillo’s leadership campaign with the declaration that ‘spin and stardust’ were not the answer to the Tories’ problems. Could Brand Rishi suffer the same fate? Could his well-attested niceness be the quality that holds him back?
It could be weeks, months or even years before we know the answers to these questions.
© Michael Ashcroft, 2020
Abridged extract from Going For Broke: The Rise Of Rishi Sunak, by Michael Ashcroft, which is published by Biteback on November 12 at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17.60, with free delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before November 16.