The ex-chancellor lost out to Liz Truss in the last leadership contest just six weeks ago after warning her tax plans would bring turmoil.
23 October 2022
To some Tories, former chancellor Rishi Sunak is the clear choice to steer Britain’s economy back towards stability, having largely predicted the turmoil unleashed by Liz Truss’s tax-cutting agenda.
But to others, he is still the traitor who brought down Boris Johnson, raising the question of whether he can unite a fractious Conservative Party.
Mr Sunak, once the golden boy of the Tory Party, clearly believes he has a chance of convincing them he can, taking another tilt at No 10 just over six weeks after losing out last time.
He was defeated in the last Tory leadership race as the party membership picked rival Ms Truss, garnering 60,399 votes to her 81,326.
In that contest, he positioned himself as the candidate prepared to tell hard truths about the state of the public finances rather than “comforting fairy tales”.
He remained resolute in the view that his rival’s promises of unfunded tax cuts at a time of worsening inflation were irresponsible, dangerous and un-Conservative, predicting that they would lead to surging mortgage rates.
After Ms Truss took office, her disastrous mini-budget triggered turbulence in the financial markets and forced the Bank of England to intervene, proving Mr Sunak right.
He kept a low profile as the chaos continued, staying away from the annual Tory conference, which was overshadowed by a U-turn on a flagship policy to scrap the 45p rate of income tax.
Accusations in the last leadership race that he represented “Treasury orthodoxy” and a “gloomster” mentality could speak in his favour this time, as many will be reassured by his undoubted experience in handling the economy and his realist approach.
The ex-chancellor gathered a string of endorsements from MPs before declaring he would run, with backers highlighting his “calm competence” and portraying him as a “serious person for serious times”.
At the start of the pandemic, he was the most popular politician in the country as he rolled out an unprecedented furlough scheme which saved millions of jobs as the economy ground to a halt.
His ambitions had been scarcely concealed since the day he entered No 11, with personalised branding on carefully-curated social media content to boost his public profile along with a concerted campaign to woo MPs.
His meteoric rise under Mr Johnson quickly made him the Cabinet minister tipped the most likely successor.
Born in 1980 in Southampton, the son of parents of Punjabi descent, Mr Sunak’s father was a family doctor and his mother ran a pharmacy, where he helped her with the books.
After private schooling at Winchester College, where he was head boy, and a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, he took an MBA at Stanford University in California where he met his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of India’s sixth richest man.
A successful business career, with spells at Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager, meant by the time he decided to enter politics in his early 30s he was already independently wealthy.
In 2014 he was selected as the Tory candidate for the ultra-safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire – then held by William (now Lord) Hague – and was duly elected in the general election the following year.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum he supported Leave, to the reported dismay of David Cameron who saw him as one of the Conservatives’ brightest prospects among the new intake.
Given his first Government post, as a junior local government minister, by Mr Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, he was an early backer of Mr Johnson for leader when she was forced out amid the fallout over Brexit.
When Mr Johnson entered No 10 in July 2019, there was swift reward with a dramatic promotion to the Cabinet as treasury chief secretary.
An even bigger step up followed in February 2020 when Sajid Javid quit as chancellor after rejecting a demand to sack all his advisers and Mr Sunak was put in charge of the nation’s finances, at the age of just 39.
The increasingly rapid spread of Covid-19 meant his mettle was swiftly tested. Within a fortnight of his first Budget he was effectively forced to rip up his financial plans as the country went into lockdown.
The new chancellor, who saw himself as a traditional small-state, low-tax Conservative, began pumping out hundreds of billions in government cash as the economy was put on life support.
But as the country emerged from the pandemic, some of the gloss began to wear off amid growing tensions with his neighbour in No 10 and anger among Tory MPs over rising taxes as he sought to rebuild the public finances.
To add to his woes, he was caught up in the “partygate” scandal, receiving a fine, along with Mr Johnson, for attending a gathering to mark the Prime Minister’s 56th birthday, even though he claimed only to have gone into No 10 to attend a meeting.
There were more questions when it emerged his wife had “non-dom” status for tax purposes, an arrangement which reportedly saved her millions, while he had retained a US “green card”, entitling him to permanent residence in the States.
For a man known for his fondness for expensive gadgets and fashionable accessories, and who still has an apartment in Santa Monica, it all looked dangerously out of touch at a time when spiralling prices were putting a financial squeeze on millions across the country.
His frustrations with Mr Johnson’s chaotic style of government, as well as a deepening rift over policy, finally spilled over when he dramatically resigned, prompting the rush for the door by other ministers that forced the prime minister to admit his time was up.
Mr Sunak has been unrepentant over his decision to quit, even as he admitted that it was a decision that may have damaged his standing among a grassroots that picked Mr Johnson as prime minister only a few years earlier.
It remains to be seen whether his colleagues, and the party faithful, are ready to forgive him for the slight, and whether the time has come for this one-time golden boy to shine.