Why you should care
Because this Fulbright scholar could hold sway with the United Kingdom's largest minority group.
Update: On Feb. 13, 2020, Rishi Sunak was named Chancellor of the Exchequer. OZY told you about him first.
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Rishi Sunak likes to tell a story about himself. It was 2015, and the grandson of Punjabi immigrants, born in the southern United Kingdom county of Hampshire, had just been elected to represent the rural, northern and almost uniformly White district of Richmond in North Yorkshire.
This was a bit of an odd fit: The spry 34-year-old Oxford graduate and Stanford University Fulbright scholar was replacing William Hague, a seasoned secretary of state and former House of Commons leader 20 years his senior. Sunak was meeting his constituents, and when he was introduced as “the new William Hague,” a Yorkshire farmer piped in: “Ah, yes, Haguey! Good bloke. I like him. Bit pale though. This one’s got a nice tan.”
Now 39, Sunak is part of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet, the chief secretary to the treasury. And on Friday, he is slated to stand in place of the prime minister in a seven-way debate hosted by the BBC — a clear sign of Johnson’s affection for the Tory rising star, and perhaps a suggestion that Sunak could be in line for an even higher post should Johnson’s party win the Dec. 12 elections. Conservative Party officials told the Financial Times that Sunak was tapped for the debate because he’s a “very able TV performer” who is “intellectually dexterous.” With his ascent, he is establishing himself as one of a few leading British politicians of color, along with the likes of Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid and Home Secretary Priti Patel.
There were not a million people like me running around [in Richmond]. There’s no point hiding that.
And so it is stories like those of the Yorkshire farmer — which Sunak restates with ease, whether in his first speech at Parliament or while sipping Earl Grey tea with the New Delhi reporter Anjali Puri — that carry utmost importance for a Britain growing both more diverse … and more divided over cultural heritage and immigration. Sunak chose to tell the story because it is “showing a comfort level” with his race, he told Puri in 2015. “It was not ignoring the elephant in the room. There were not a million people like me running around [in Richmond]. There’s no point hiding that; it is what it is. We can have a good laugh on it and move on.”
Move on to what exactly isn’t clear — perhaps the sober business of governing, or just away from uncomfortable tea time conversations. But what is evident is a shift in British politics, led by lawmakers like Sunak, in which the vote of the nation’s largest minority population — those of Indian descent — is no longer a given for the left-leaning Labour Party, according to at least one recent poll.
An “emergency” resolution against India’s annexation of Kashmir at the Labour Party conference earlier this year could be driving voters away. And yet, experts say that trend has been coming for some time before Kashmir arose as a political issue. The “increased wealth and political influence” of the Indian diaspora has led to the “shift rightward,” argues Faisal Devji, a professor of Indian history at Oxford University.
That tale of rising fortunes is certainly reflective of Sunak’s past. The son of a general practitioner father and pharmacist mother — he has said he can’t remember their political leanings — Sunak was able to attend Britain’s oldest public school, Winchester College. There, he became the first head boy of Indian origin before studying at Oxford and Stanford, where he met his future wife, Akshata Murthy, daughter of Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy. Before entering politics, Sunak also worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and co-founded the then-$700 million hedge fund Theleme Partners.
Whether his fortune continues to climb will partly depend on whether he can help Johnson retain his prime minister post this December. While Johnson is widely unpopular, as is his Brexit stance, Sunak has been a staunch defender of both — as he is of Britain in general. He sees his home as more welcoming to both business and personal values than other parts of Europe and the United States (even debating his billionaire father-in-law on the issue, he told Puri). “There will be challenges, and that’s why we’re working so hard to mitigate those,” Sunak told Bloomberg News, acknowledging the possibility that the U.K. could leave the European Union without a firm exit deal in place.
With 1.5 million British Indians forming a crucial bloc of voters, it is perhaps no surprise that Sunak has been asked to speak up when his party needs his voice most. And if he is successful, it might not be the last time Sunak is standing on a U.K. prime minister debate stage.