Rishi Sunak On Privilege, Fatherhood And The Cost-Of-Living Crisis

Back in June, Gaby Hinsliff interviewed Rishi Sunak for Grazia - as he goes up against Liz Truss to be the new Prime Minister, we revisit what he had to say.

by Gabby Hinsliff |

Rishi Sunak has shed his immaculately cut jacket, and pushed the sleeves of his gleaming white shirt up a fraction. When we speak, the Chancellor is visiting a factory near the former colliery town of Spennymoor in County Durham, and this is about as unbuttoned as things get.

Here in Bishop Auckland, a formerly safe Labour constituency that turned Tory in 2019, Sunak urges a selected group of factory workers to ask him whatever they want. He glides through some anxious but polite questions about carers’ benefits, affordable housing, whether he’d grant all primary schoolchildren free school meals – which he sidesteps by praising some free holiday activities with food included that the Treasury funded last summer – and then he’s off to tour the factory, adding earnestly that he hopes they’re ‘feeling reassured’.

As a multimillionaire former hedge- funder, married to a billionaire’s daughter, Sunak is acutely aware he is insulated from the financial struggles many of us face. What he does struggle with, he says, is balancing politics with fatherhood. He and his wife, Akshata, have two daughters: nine-year-old daughter Krishna, and 11-year-old Anoushka. ‘Earlier in my career, where I had a lot more control over my schedule, I was able to be hugely present and engaged, and probably my wife would tell you that when our girls were babies to toddlers, I probably did the bulk of it. I love it, and I’ve really missed it,’ he says wistfully.

‘One of the reasons I was so reluctant to have a third kid was I wouldn’t be able to repeat that experience, and that was really important to me. That was a really special time for me, and I loved it.’ Is he feeling broody? ‘I was at a constituency thing last week, and there was a lovely little one-year-old girl who I carrie around with me during this visit. It was the first time in a while I felt, “Oh, that would be nice again,”’ he confesses.

It’s been a tricky year so far for the Sunaks. He got a police fine for attending a now-infamous Cabinet meeting where Johnson was given a birthday cake, just as it emerged Indian-born Akshata is domiciled for tax overseas, and so wasn’t paying British taxes on overseas earnings from her father’s business (she’s since committed to doing so). Friends say Sunak was deeply upset by criticism of his wife, with some predicting he might even leave politics. But his £21 billion package of help with fuel bills, meant to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, pushed him back into the spotlight.

Grazia has campaigned to cut the cost of childcare, with 62% of families in a recent survey by campaigners Pregnant Then Screwed saying it now costs them as much as rent or mortgage. So, is the Chancellor sympathetic to reducing those bills too? ‘Yeah, absolutely, and I know my colleagues have made progress,’ he says, citing a review of childcare regulation by education ministers that’s expected to consider cutting costs by allowing childminders to look after more than six children at once, despite concerns about the impact on care. Sunak says that’s one option, but stresses the review will explore others. ‘We can look at other countries and how do they do it. We want to maintain high-quality childcare, but can we do it in a more affordable way?’

Earlier, one factory worker had asked him whether the £21 billion package of help with fuel bills he recently unveiled was cynically timed to distract from the scandal of lockdown parties at Downing Street. (Spoiler alert: he insists it wasn’t.) Many at Westminster were surprised when Sunak was dragged into partygate, given he’s a teetotaller with a workaholic reputation. The son of a GP and a pharmacist, whose grandparents came to England from India with very little, Sunak says his parents taught him he’d have to work hard for what he wanted. ‘I didn’t see my parents a lot growing up, because they were working – the best thing they thought they could do for me and my brother and sister was to work really hard to provide a better life for us.’

He was sent to fee-paying Winchester College and says that, for his parents, ‘everything was secondary’ to education. Sunak’s own daughters have grown up wealthy, but he says he and his wife warn them against taking their privilege for granted; they’re expected to do chores at home, including walking the dog. ‘We have to work that extra bit harder to make sure that they are brought up with the same values, because my wife grew up in exactly the same way – her family [had] very little, and her parents created something special, from a business perspective, from absolutely nothing.’

Many Tory MPs wrote Sunak off as a prospective leader following the furore over his wife’s finances. But some still wonder whether, with a life story like this, he’d appeal to what’s been dubbed ‘Waitrose Woman’ – a key demographic of middle-class former Tory voters, repelled by sleaze and by aggressive culture wars over gay rights or immigration.

Recent research by the think tank British Future suggests 85% of Britons would now be comfortable having an ethnic minority Prime Minister, removing one obstacle to any ambitions Sunak may still harbour. So is he heartened by the 85%, or depressed by the still hostile 15%?

‘I’m an optimist by nature. If I think about my own experience – of course I suffered from racism when I was younger, and what I’m heartened by is that the things that happened to me as a kid or growing up, I think more likely than not wouldn’t happen now to the same extent – or if they did, other people would probably step in and say something about it. That shows the enormous progress we’ve made as a country, which is something that I’m really proud of,’ he says.

‘I’m not even the first, I’m the second ethnic minority Chancellor we’ve had [after Sajid Javid] and I think actually this is something that we should celebrate in this country – our tolerance, and our ability to integrate people from different backgrounds into a shared and common understanding of what it means to be British. But it doesn’t mean that there’s not always progress to be made, right?’ Time will tell if Sunak is the man to make it.

Main image: Photographer - Tracey Welch

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