The chancellor of the coronavirus: how Rishi Sunak took center stage




                Dans le monde au-delà de la salle à manger d'État lambrissée du 10 Downing Street, la livre s'écroulait, les entreprises fermaient, les rues se vidaient et l'un des plus grands hôpitaux de Londres était à court de lits de soins intensifs. Pourtant, à l'intérieur, un calme presque surréaliste semblait entourer l'homme chargé d'empêcher le coronavirus de se transformer en catastrophe économique.

Rishi Sunak, the recently installed British Chancellor of the Treasury, checked his notes before calmly browsing through the “unprecedented” steps he intended to take.

A cut figure in a dark suit, a white shirt and a burgundy tie, Sunak had already allocated tens of billions of pounds to save businesses in difficulty, but his new approach had never been tried before, even in wartime : “For the first time in our history, our government will pay the wages of the people,” he told the nation.

Sunak’s “all it takes” message on March 20 won critical acclaim from the media and political opponents, as did the soothing manner in which he delivered it. “We want to look back on this period and remember how we first thought of others and acted decently,” he said. Beyond admiration for the magnitude of the Chancellor’s response, there was a more fundamental question: who was this pretentious politician?

Rishi Sunak is still a few weeks away from his 40th birthday, yet is at the center of Britain’s most acute economic – and human – crisis since the financial crash, perhaps since World War II. He has been an MP for less than five years and just a year ago, he was the youngest minister in local government.

As Covid-19 swept the country, Rishi Sunak was forced to extend assistance to employees on leave, the self-employed and businesses in difficulty. The bill for the first six months is expected to exceed £ 60 billion; the final calculation could be much higher
As Covid-19 swept the country, Rishi Sunak was forced to extend assistance to employees on leave, the self-employed and businesses in difficulty. The bill for the first six months is expected to exceed £ 60 billion; the final calculation could be much higher © Barry Falls

Until his appointment as chancellor on February 13 – following the dramatic resignation of his friend and then boss Sajid Javid – he had not headed a government department.

Few people saw Sunak coming, but during this tense press conference on coronaviruses at 10 Downing Street, there was a collective realization that the Prime Minister’s podium may well be where it would ultimately go. The press has been cruel in making comparisons between the elegant Chancellor and the still crumpled figure of Boris Johnson, who stands beside him and struggles to explain the government’s slow initial response to the virus. Ladbrokes makes Sunak his favorite to become the next Prime Minister.

“He is intelligent, energetic and he listens, which is important,” said Frances O’Grady, head of the TUC, the British trade union movement. O’Grady would not normally be a fan of a conservative chancellor, but several days of negotiations with Sunak over the coronavirus job package convinced her: “It is a heavy responsibility for young shoulders.

“What I would say is that he has an emotional intelligence. It’s a different style, without that sense of superiority that some people have. He is very frank in saying that he never expected him to be in this position; it’s not conservatism as we’ve known it for 40 years. Things happen very quickly, judgments are quick. “

Sunak arriving at a press conference # 10 with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 17. In his fourth week as chancellor, he announced a

Sunak arriving at a press conference # 10 with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 17. In his fourth week as chancellor, he announced an ‘unprecedented’ £ 350 billion bailout for business © Getty

Carolyn Fairbairn, director of the CBI employers’ federation, also became a fan of the treasure cups of tea: “We all felt incredible relief. He has shown that you can come together and do things that are great and have the potential to change the course of the river. “

Sunak got up so fast that he barely had time to acquire enemies, but the future could be more difficult. “It will not be so popular when we put taxes in place again to solve this problem,” admits an insider from the Treasury. He remains vulnerable to the whims of Johnson and his team and will inevitably become a man marked for his rivals. But so far, it has come a dizzying trajectory at the highest level of British politics.

The rise of Sunak has blinded many people. He is not a sociable figure in the Conservative parliamentary party: few MPs remember seeing him working in tea rooms like other ambitious colleagues.

Teetotaler, he is more likely to end a long day at Westminster at home with his family than to chat late at night over dinner. Basically, Sunak is a nerd: he likes video games, spreadsheets and Star Wars, admitting to attending the midnight screenings of the films.

“He is truly an” Ivory Tower “politician, he does not care much about Parliament and the clubbable side of politics,” said a conservative MP of his generation. “He certainly has no natural support base and has never worked for the parliamentary party like some of our recruits. “

His golden CV, however, offers a clue to his political potential. Trained at £ 40,000 a year at Winchester College, where he was a school principal, he continued his studies at Oxford (where he received a first in politics, philosophy and economics), Stanford and Goldman Sachs.

In his constituency of Richmond, Yorkshire, published on his Facebook page in June 2019. The activists wanted another local for the seat, previously held by the proud Yorkshireman William Hague, but were seduced by

In his constituency of Richmond, Yorkshire, published on his Facebook page in June 2019. The activists wanted another local for the seat, previously held by the proud Yorkshireman William Hague, but were seduced by the “obvious intelligence” of Sunak © Facebook / rishisunak

It is a classic route from the Conservatives to power, except that in the case of Sunak, he has a twist: he does not come from an environment rich in land and municipal interests. His parents were immigrants: his father was a general practitioner in a difficult area of ​​Southampton – O’Grady thinks this may have helped the Chancellor to show “compassion” – and his mother ran a local chemist. Later, her son would help her keep the accounts.

Sunak, who declined to be interviewed for this article, attributes his conservative instinct to his parents and their determination to continue and improve the lives of their families. “My parents sacrificed a lot so that I could go to good schools,” he says on his website. He passed the Winchester scholarship exam but did not get a full scholarship; his parents still sent him there.

He was born in 1980. His Indian grandparents emigrated to Britain from East Africa around 60 years ago and the Chancellor proudly remembers taking his grandfather around Westminster shortly after being elected a member of parliament in 2015. “He took out his phone to take a photo,” Sunak told the BBC Political thought podcast last year. “There were tears in his eyes. “

Young Rishi, known as Rish for his friends, spoke English at home and grew up passionate about cricket, Southampton FC and his football genius Matt Le Tissier. A practicing Hindu, Sunak recalled, “I would be at the temple on weekends. . . but I would also be at the Saints game on a Saturday. He was the target of occasional racism, telling the BBC how “it stung” when he was abused as “Paki” at a local restaurant.

After graduating from Oxford, Sunak started work at Goldman Sachs, where he worked as a junior analyst in the merchant banking division for three years. A colleague said he had “stood out” from the start, remembering a day away from the Lord’s Cricket Ground. Sunak was “by far the youngest and youngest of the guys” present but “took it very seriously in a very nice way – he was showing us what to do.” Sunak does not mention his visit to Goldman on his “about me” web page.

Starting in 2005, he spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow at Stanford University, studying for an MBA. Back in London, he started working in hedge funds. In 2006, he joined the aggressive militant fund TCI, founded by billionaire Chris Hohn and known for his controversial campaign at ABN Amro which led to the sale of the Dutch bank to the Royal Bank of Scotland, Santander and Fortis. The deal was seen as a critical factor in the fall of RBS during the financial crisis.

Hohn previously told FT that Sunak had no involvement in the ABN Amro campaign – “It had nothing to do with banking investment, I led this” – and praised him for his “solid capabilities of analysis, his high integrity and his low ego ”. Sunak’s time at TCI, one of London’s largest hedge funds, has been such a demanding success. Hohn is known as a tough boss. “He is not fooled, he would not have survived long with Chris Hohn if he was,” said a former colleague.

After leaving TCI in 2009, Sunak joined Theleme Partners with a former TCI colleague, Patrick Degorce. His stay there coincided with another controversy: Degorce was ordered to reimburse approximately £ 8 million following a court in 2013 which found that he had tried to shelter millions of tax books. A Treasury official said that Sunak was not involved in this campaign or the TCI campaign at ABN Amro.

Sunak’s time in finance made him wealthy – he would be one of the wealthiest members of parliament. But even without its own resources, money in the Sunak house is not exactly a problem. At Stanford, he met Akshata Murthy, whose father NR Narayana Murthy founded the outsourcing company Infosys and is the sixth richest man in India, with a net worth of more than $ 2 billion, according to Forbes .

Akshata heads the fashion brand Akshata Designs and is also the director of a venture capital company founded by his father in 2010. The couple married in 2009 and live with their two young daughters in a Georgian mansion in the riding of Sunak, in North Yorkshire, in Richmond, and south-west of London.

Sunak’s decision to go in politics was not obvious, nor was his choice of the riding he hoped to fight in the 2015 elections. Richmond, a traditional agricultural seat and easy of valleys and panoramic panoramas, was previously owned by the proud Yorkshireman and former conservative chief William Hague.

The Hague recalls that constituency activists had already decided to choose another Yorkshireman to fight the siege, perhaps a farmer, but Sunak quickly convinced them. “No one had heard of him, but his effect on the association was dramatic,” he said. “They had in their minds the kind of person they wanted, and then that totally different person came in. To their credit, they made a complete U-turn. The bottom line is that he was obviously very intelligent without any hint of arrogance. It’s a very unusual combination in politics. It is an extreme case. “

On a walkabout in Richmond; posted on Facebook in August 2019. Sunak embraced life in the traditional and affluent farming headquarters, where he bought a large house - and learned to milk cows

On a walkabout in Richmond; posted on Facebook in August 2019. Sunak embraced life in the traditional and affluent farming headquarters, where he bought a large house – and learned to milk cows © Instagram / rishisunakmp

Sunak, who does not eat beef, jumped into local life, learning to milk cows and buying a big house in the riding. Predictably, he won Richmond by a landslide in 2015 when David Cameron won a majority Conservative government, but it was not yet clear what type of Conservative he would become.

At Oxford, Sunak had joined the investment company, learning to trade in the markets, rather than playing student politics. A colleague minister thinks that he ended up entering political life because he wanted to fix things, but that he approaches politics in a non-ideological way: “He has no agenda, it is a problem solver. He is more of a businessman than a politician in this regard. A friend says that Sunak “has taken advantage of all the opportunities available to him and wants to give something back.”

Sajid Javid, who resigned as chancellor in February in a power struggle with the number 10, met Sunak before the 2015 elections and said that the aspiring politician shared many of his own beliefs: “He is someone who is naturally interested in commercial matters. I felt that we were more or less on the same wavelength: on business, the economy, free enterprise, lower taxes, less regulation. “

The coronavirus, however, has overturned ideology. Sunak had to renationalise railroad franchises, pay part of the country’s wage bill and borrow huge sums of money. Higher taxes may follow to pay down the debt. Javid said that Sunak had “no alternative” and that beside his difficult economic views, there was “a lot of compassion” in him. But his friends say he is “instinctively against” the state measures he is forced to adopt.


Make “an infusion” of Yorkshire Tea “for the budget preparation team”; posted on Instagram on February 21. “He works 18 hours a day now,” says an ally. “He’s worn out. But he’s always the one who says, “Come on, go on to the next job” © Instagram / rishisunakmp

The Hague says, “There is nothing wet in it. He would have been Thatcherite at the time of Thatcher, but he is not stuck in the 80s. ”He says that Sunak also believes in state activism and his point of view as a deputy from the North informs his desire to postpone walk to places such as the Tees Industrial Valley.

“He is very aware that the Conservatives must be able to revive a region like this,” continues Hague, noting Sunak’s proposal to create a free port in the region. “You can see the Tees Valley from any hill in the riding of Richmond.”

Sunak’s political pragmatism was evident in his response to the coronavirus crisis. But this also appears, according to his colleagues, in his approach to the United Kingdom with four nations. Attachment to the Union flag is normally a given for Conservative MPs, but colleagues say Sunak has generally seen the problem through a financial lens.

A Conservative colleague remembers: “I remember discussing the future of the Union with Rishi and he argued that England should separate. He advocated the end of the UK because it made no financial sense to him. He has no love for the institution and I suspect he looks at him like he looks at anything: what’s the profit? Sunak’s allies say the Chancellor doesn’t remember the conversation and is a staunch supporter of the Union “and the shared values ​​it represents”.

The extraordinary rise of Sunak neophyte politician to chancellor in less than five years was rooted in two big appeals, both of which would benefit his career. The first, inevitably, was Brexit. When Cameron held his unsuccessful 2016 EU referendum, Sunak joined Leave camp, campaigning alongside Johnson and lining up with conservative activists, including many of his Eurosceptic voters. Richmond would end up voting 56%.

“He was the new guy from London, there was no way he could have supported Remain,” said an MP. But The Hague and Javid agree that Sunak thought he could see the “economic opportunities” in Brexit, even though many Treasury officials he heads today believe it is run down and have calculated that Johnson’s preferred trade deal with the EU would cut UK growth by 5% over the next 15 years.

Arrived at No. 10 on February 13, the day he was appointed chancellor. Sunak's allies admit that the coronavirus epidemic is a huge personal test for him:

Arrived at No. 10 on February 13, the day he was appointed chancellor. Sunak’s allies admit that the coronavirus epidemic is a huge personal test for him: “Rish is well aware that more experienced guys have been spit out of him by these kinds of events,” says one © Getty

Sunak previously argued that he “reviewed the numbers” and that his time at Stanford helped convince him that the world is changing very quickly and that the EU is not following. Britain had to be more agile.

“He’s a Brexiter, but from my experience, it’s not unusual for a second generation immigrant,” said a minister who knows him well. “This country has changed their life outcomes. . . He went to Winchester and Oxford – these things are the result of this country. This is something that has a very strong attraction.

“The people in international financial services were often powerful Brexiters,” he adds. “They had different backgrounds, they didn’t care about continental supply chains like the people in international trade. “

Sunak’s decision to support Leave was a grave disappointment for Cameron, who had personally attempted to win the newly elected deputy. According to someone familiar with the meeting, Cameron sighed as the relentless Sunak left the room, “If we lost Rishi, we lost the future of the party.” “

Sunak’s second major call backed Johnson for the Conservative leadership last summer. He briefly considered supporting Michael Gove, also a fellow Brexiter, by saying to his colleagues, “My heart says Gove, my head says Boris. Although Sunak presented this as a difficult choice about the candidate who was most likely to revive the Tories, he also knew that Johnson was likely to win.

In a well-publicized intervention, Sunak joined two other rising party stars – Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden – to support Johnson on the front page of The Times. Sunak’s name appeared first on the article, which was headlined: “The Conservatives are in great danger. Only Boris Johnson can save us. “

“Bland, keep your head down,” was how a minister from a rival camp described the trio. But it also showed that they were extremely ambitious. Sunak had meetings with Johnson before the approval and his Conservative colleagues said the whole thing was “transactional” and that it paid off. Although Johnson insisted that he was not distributing jobs during the campaign, the three new MPs are now seated at the cabinet table.

To cement his relationship with the future Prime Minister, Sunak quickly followed by welcoming Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds to his big Yorkshire home during the leadership campaign, serving barbecue burgers in well-kept grounds. People who have spent time with Sunak and Akshata say the couple are “very welcoming, completely down to earth.”

Although most people say that Sunak is thoughtless, his wealth can be a subtly deployed political asset: a few months later at the Treasury, he welcomed staff to an expensive Mayfair restaurant after completing a spending review.

In July 2019, Sunak entered the treasury as number two of his friend Javid, who became Johnson’s first chancellor. “We had a very good partnership: professional, cheerful, respectful,” recalls Javid. Mats Persson, a former Treasury advisor, said that Sunak made an immediate impression: “He can move between detail and the big picture in a way that few politicians can. Officials give it a high rating. He knows the file and can lead internal discussions with clarity on what he wants to do. “

Javid resigned in February after Johnson – prompted by his combative chief counselor Dominic Cummings – decided to sack all of the chancellor’s advisers and merge officials at numbers 10 and 11 into a single economic team. At this point, it was obvious to everyone – including Javid – that it was only a matter of time before Sunak became chancellor.

With his former boss and chancellor of the time Sajid Javid; posted on Instagram in December 2019. Javid says he urged Johnson not to choose a soft touch to replace him:

With his former boss and then chancellor Sajid Javid; posted on Instagram in December 2019. Javid says he urged Johnson not to choose a soft touch to replace him: “I said,” You need someone who is going to be straight with you and capable … This must be Rishi ”© nstagram / rishisunakmp

As he was about to exit Downing Street, Javid urged Johnson not to choose a soft touch instead: “I said to the PM: ‘You need someone who is going to be right with you and capable, “and I said that to be Rishi. Since Johnson’s allies once called Sunak “Boris’ preferred minister,” the conversation was probably superfluous.

Sunak immediately focused on preparing a March 11 budget, which included spending proposals to boost the north of England and a package of £ 12 billion to help fight coronaviruses. But within days, as Covid-19 swept the country, ultimately infecting Johnson, Sunak was forced to extend assistance to employees on leave, the self-employed, and struggling businesses. The bill for the first six months of the epidemic is expected to exceed £ 60 billion; the final calculation could be much higher.

The coronavirus has been a huge challenge for Sunak. “Rishi feels the weight of the world on his shoulders,” says an ally. “He knows he has a huge responsibility on him and he has been working 18 hours a day for weeks now. He is physically and psychologically exhausted. But he’s always the one who says to people, “Come on, go on to the next job. »»

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It is also a political opportunity. For a decade, conservative chancellors have had to cut public spending: Sunak, on the other hand, has been praised in recent weeks for behaving like a leftist Labor chancellor, distributing money. Jeremy Corbyn, the outgoing leader of the Labor Party, said his generosity showed that the opposition was “absolutely right” by calling for increased public spending in the 2019 elections.

George Osborne, the chancellor who introduced an extended period of austerity in the UK, says it will be harder for Sunak to start again. “I know Rishi and I know he is more than competent,” said Osborne to the FT. “He is intelligent, engaging and unflappable in the face of the great responsibilities he faces. He also knows what all chancellors know: spending money is the simplest task; l’élever est le plus difficile.

Les fonctionnaires du Trésor parlent avec révérence de leur nouveau patron, certains affirmant qu’il est le chancelier le plus compétent depuis Nigel Lawson il y a plus de 30 ans. Mais la courbe d’apprentissage a été incroyablement abrupte: Sunak n’a même pas eu le temps de s’installer dans le No 11 Downing Street depuis sa base sud-ouest de Londres.

Nick Macpherson, secrétaire permanent du Trésor pendant plus d’une décennie jusqu’en 2016, a déclaré: « Il est le genre de chancelier que le Trésor apprécie: décisif, en plus de son mémoire et prêt à tenir tête au n ° 10. »

Lors d'un débat électoral à Cardiff, le 29 novembre 2019. Sunak est un Brexiter et a soutenu Johnson pour qu'il soit leader conservateur l'année dernière - deux appels qui expliquent sa montée rapide dans les rangs du parti

Lors d’un débat électoral à Cardiff, le 29 novembre 2019. Sunak est un Brexiter et a soutenu Johnson pour qu’il soit leader conservateur l’année dernière – deux appels qui expliquent sa montée rapide dans les rangs du parti © Getty Images

Macpherson fait valoir que les politiques récentes en matière de soutien bancaire et de liquidité ont été clairement élaborées au Trésor, tout comme la menace voilée pour les indépendants que s’ils voulaient un soutien de l’État, ils devraient commencer à payer des impôts comme les employés. Frances O’Grady convient que Sunak ressemble déjà à son propre homme. « Il serait difficile pour quiconque de prétendre en ce moment qu’il était une sorte de personne malléable, ce qui était la suggestion lorsqu’il a remplacé Sajid Javid », dit-elle.

Numéro 10 sous Johnson et son consigliere Cummings n’a cependant jamais toléré de sources de pouvoir rivales, d’où sa décision de mettre le Trésor sous son aile. Certains conservateurs affirment que l’assurance de Sunak et son image saine font déjà regarder certains membres du camp Johnson par-dessus leur épaule.

Son compte Instagram, y compris des photos d’un Sunak concentré et mince comme un whippet travaillant de chez lui dans un sweat à capuche gris, suggère un politicien avec un œil attentif pour une image saisissante. Mais les alliés de Johnson insistent sur le fait que le Premier ministre et son équipe n’ont que la plus grande admiration pour Sunak: « Il est un gars formidable et incroyablement talentueux », a déclaré un assistant du Premier ministre.

«Travail à domicile»; posté sur Instagram le 29 mars. Certains disent que son assurance fait en sorte que certains membres du camp Johnson regardent par-dessus leur épaule, mais les alliés du Premier ministre insistent pour dire qu'il pense que Sunak est

‘Working from home’; posted to Instagram on March 29. Some say his self-assurance is causing some members of the Johnson camp to look over their shoulder, but the PM’s allies insist he thinks Sunak is ‘a great guy – and incredibly talented’ © Instagram/rishisunakmp

While Sunak’s swift rise means he has had little time to accumulate enemies, he has also not had time to build up a support base. For now, he is dependent on Johnson for his job and is surrounded by advisers screened and appointed by Cummings.

“Who are his friends, his mob?” asks one Tory minister. Other old hands wonder whether he has the political street-fighting skills to cope when the flak is flying, or the ruthless streak to strike when the top job is in sight.

“The question is whether he has the appetite and willingness to take risks,” says one Conservative insider. “It has never been apparent to me that he has a killer instinct. I don’t think he’s a patsy for No 10 but I think this has come a bit early for him.” The chancellor’s allies admit the coronavirus outbreak is a huge personal test for the chancellor: “Rish is keenly aware that this is a major crisis and more experienced blokes than him have been spat out by these kinds of events,” says one.

William Hague isn’t so sure that Sunak is not ready. As the biographer of Pitt the Younger — the Tory statesman who became chancellor in 1782 at the age of 23 and prime minister at the age of 24 — Hague believes the coronavirus crisis could be the furnace in which another great British political career is forged.

“If someone is suddenly given great responsibility and then turns out to be more than equal to the challenge, that immediately overcomes the disadvantages of getting to the top too soon,” he says. “Rishi Sunak’s political potential is huge. He ranks as highly as anyone I’ve seen coming into politics.”

Rishi Sunak’s busy six weeks

February 13

Sajid Javid resigns as chancellor, following an ultimatum by Boris Johnson to sack all of his advisers. The prime minister immediately appoints Javid’s deputy, Rishi Sunak, to the post.

March 11

Sunak unveils his first Budget, including a £12bn stimulus to tackle coronavirus. Statutory sick pay will be covered by the government and the NHS will be given ‘whatever it takes’. He suggests the virus will cause ‘temporary disruption’ to the UK economy.

March 17

As the British economy shuts down, Sunak announces an ‘unprecedented’ £350bn rescue package for businesses — including £330bn of state-backed loans and £20bn of handouts. Business rates are cancelled for a year and mortgages are put on hold for up to three months.

le 20 mars

In his second ‘unprecedented’ rescue package, Sunak announces the government will help companies by paying 80 per cent of furloughed workers’ wages up to £2,500 a month per person, as well as deferring VAT payments for three months.

26 mars

Sunak pledges £3bn of support for the self-employed, offering a cash grant in June covering 80 per cent of their trading profits, initially for three months. The chancellor warns this could cost ‘tens of billions’. Those earning above £50,000 a year are not covered.

March 27

FT analysis suggests Sunak will add £60bn of public spending to the UK economy, which could push the deficit as high as £200bn in the coming financial year. Such increases will pose difficult decisions for the chancellor once the immediate crisis passes.

George Parker is the FT’s political editor, Sebastian Payne is the Whitehall correspondent. Additional reporting by Jim Pickard

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