Letter from London: Dishy Rishi and the Karma Machine

I possess no inside information on our present prime minister. But I do remain fascinated by human beings. My immediate take on Rishi Sunak today is that he may not wish to win the next election. An election which could take place alongside the US one, though Sunak has not ruled out May. November 5th — as everyone will know, election night in the States — is Bonfire Night. The night when we celebrate with a burning effigy the 1605 failure of Guy Fawkes and his tyrannicidal plotters to blow up Parliament. Interestingly, some believe the US could do with one for January 6.

Anyway, I feel old recalling my first trip to the States not long after Baby Rishi was born 43 years ago. With East African parents of Indian descent, he was living in Southampton on the south coast of England. Following head boy status at English boarding school Winchester, where he tried but failed to get a scholarship, Student Rishi found himself reading at Oxford that old chestnut PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), dropping Philosophy in his first year, then off to California to catch some rays as a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford. It was while Stateside that Romantic Rishi met his Indian wife Akshata Murty, which is why he so enjoys a triangle of loyalties — India, the US, and UK — despite supporting only England in the present eye-popping cricket Test series against India.

With India comes the India-based company Infosys. This is where the plot thickens. Sunak’s wife, who is richer than the King, owns around 39 million shares in Infosys, the reason why she and Husband Rishi can enjoy a combined wealth of approximately $645 million. (‘Still not as much as artist Gerhard Richter,’ as TV series director Paul Donnellon playfully told me last week: ‘So the artist wins this round.’) Infosys is basically a multinational information technology aggregation founded and still run by Sunak’s wife’s family. It is on an approved list of suppliers for massive UK public sector contracts said to have come in at more than $950 million in recent months. It was last month part of one $320 million contract issued by NHS Shared Business Services for ‘intelligent automation’. In addition, two months before Sunak issued hundreds of licenses for his controversial reintroduction of oil and gas extraction in the North Sea, his father-in-law signed a $1.5 billion deal with BP. This issue came about when Sunak was at the same time being accused of leading the country to ruin by pursuing too many net-zero targets. (He can expect further grief when he starts fining boiler companies for failing to hit sales targets on more eco-friendly heat pumps.)

So is his work now done? Sunak is happiest playing businessman to business councils and meeting the likes of Rolls-Royce, BT, and Unilever heads, though he is suitably embarrassed when business leaders expose Brexit failings. Innovation is what Infosys likes most. Regular updates. Delivery. All the grinding but necessary buzzwords of the modern-day corporate mansplainer. By contrast, he appears far less comfortable confronting Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over Ireland’s challenge to UK Laws attempting immunity on people accused of offenses during the Troubles. Business is clearly his business. Not ethno-nationalist conflict.

Today, Sunak is most under pressure from the latest net migration projections suggesting the UK population will reach nearly 74 million by 2036. This is perhaps the greatest hot potato in UK politics. Without the killer instinct of an alt-right evangelical like Suella Braverman, does he really want to be in the same room as such hostile rhetoric? What about Brand Rishi? On his many derided helicopter hops across the land, does he not look down at times and wonder why he is even bothering? Doesn’t he have all the contacts he needs, a so-called abundance mindset, and a desire now like many businessmen to pay himself first?

Like a piece of English oak, the Tory Party is splitting down the middle. It is a piercing sound. You can almost anticipate Sunak’s hands over his ears. Hasn’t he also been keeping his head down as Arabist foreign secretary Lord Cameron is accused — albeit with dark humor — of modeling himself as ‘the Balfour of the Palestinians’ by wanting to fast-track UK recognition of the Palestinian state? (Sunak in Tel Aviv in November, after the surprise attack by Hamas on Israel, innocently told Netanyahu, who of course opposes the two-state solution, he wanted him ‘to win’.)

Similarly, while the UK’s Reform Party rubs its frowzy hands at the prospect of yet more support coming over from the Tory right, Sunak possesses none of the ‘Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way’ attributes of a General Patton, though he may know his Polybius, who said a good general not only sees the way to victory, he also knows when victory is impossible.

Still in the dark about why he perseveres, I asked a friend to sum him up who worked in a similar field to Sunak when he was an investment banker and hedge fund manager. ‘Everyone can see he’s a smart and competent guy,’ he said. ‘But so what? There are tens of thousands of them. He doesn’t understand this country or the electorate. Spent his whole life amongst a ruling class who no longer fought alongside the working class in wars, or employed them in family businesses, or who really had any permanent attachment to the country at all. Everyone thinks he’s off to California as soon as he’s kicked out.’

One thing Sunak’s team do want us to know about is the strict morning routine. Endlessly, we hear of a punishingly early riser who hits the Peloton at 6 am. Sunak has also just come out as a faster. Though intermittent fasting remains big in Silicon Valley, it is relatively uninvestigated here. Once a week he does 36 hours of this, going without food at 5 pm every Sunday until 5 am on Tuesday. Peloton Rishi, they wish, radiates. But during Cabinet meetings come late on Monday afternoons, do not colleagues hear his stomach over-growl?

Talking of gut instincts, the British Medical Journal reckons it was Sunak’s judgment over Covid and his eternally argued link between health and wealth that should have been called out at the time. Is he even a good businessman, people now ask? Sunak was one of four government ministers — along with Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove — who acted as key Covid decision-makers, in Sunak’s case after being made Chancellor of the Exchequer. While some struggled with loss, or worked as volunteers, he was next door to a partying Number 10, dishing out grants, or furloughs, of up to 80% of people’s salaries, including to those with large savings and expensive properties, like it was like his very own corporate lovefest. Some freelancers were left behind watching all this with open mouths and utter amazement. Furthermore, Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme — with people claiming the equivalent of a whopping 160 million meals — cost over $1 billion. Not forgetting an additional 9.5% fraud rate. (At least $5.7 billion in three separate Covid schemes was lost to fraud on Sunak’s watch.) This eating-out malarkey caused an explosion in Covid cases — not seen in other countries — and most certainly helped bring about an earlier second UK lockdown, costing no end of further financial loss.

I suppose it must have been surreal entering 10 Downing Street after such a grim succession of picayune prime ministers. His immediate predecessor Liz Truss famously managed in 44 days to wipe out nearly $40 billion of the UK economy. I won’t even mention the damage wreaked to this country by Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson over Brexit. Yes, Sunak has a better grasp of numbers but appears to have no idea of how unimaginable it is right now for those lower down the chain from him. In fact, he is doing far worse than any previous prime minister during an election year. This means worse than Gordon Brown in 2010 and John Major in 1997. His latest plans for a pre-election tax cut have been met with heavy skepticism from the IMF (International Monetary Fund), who basically say he can’t afford it. Similarly, Kemi Badenoch’s denials about plotting to succeed him have backfired. He is presiding over a British Army expected to have no more than 70,000 soldiers in two years — over $12 billion short of its required funding — and some say the total sum of Sunak’s legacy will be to have banned the sale of disposable vapes.

In my very early teens, I used to know guests like Rishi Sunak at my grandmother’s hotel in Northumberland. I would talk by reception with them or while overlooking the North Sea. They were always polite and easy to exchange views with. Then at some point in the conversation, there might come that moment when the guest’s more conservative views deserve polite challenging. During such moments, I could see running through their minds whether or not to take on this young teenager or just to saunter off in the direction of one of the lounges. Dishy Rishi today strikes me as a man who would rather saunter off.

Peter Bach lives in London.