To kick off the Conservative conference, Laura Kuenssberg gave Rishi Sunak his first look on air at a word cloud of responses from the public to the question: “What does Rishi Sunak stand for?” If you wanted to build a reputation as a supervillain, the words looked good, but what about a prime minister? Unprecedented? Devastating? “The rich“, “wealthy”, “rich” and “people” were four different categories that were by far the most common; only “money” and “himself” came close. A few people knew he was a conservative. There was an honorable mention of “wealth”, which is a little more polite than “rich“, as it is not something you are, but something you have. Anyway, one thing has become clear about the Prime Minister: He is really rich.
When he took office a year ago, the thought arose that his immense wealth could be a problem for him, and only in everyday life. Traditionally, people want their politicians to know how much milk costs and how to pour a cup. This was always an easy solution for our esteemed public servants as they could acquire these details before running for office.
By the time Sunak took office, milk prices were rising so fast that no one knew how much they were from one week to the next, and he could have been given a pass. Besides, his supporters were quick to make vociferous arguments about the politics of envy. You couldn’t help being rich, any more than you could help being Catholic; in fact, it was bigoted to take offence at the fact that your prime minister was richer than King Charles. We lived in a political era when it was sexist to take offence that Liz Truss had ruined the economy, and racist to question Priti Patel’s Rwanda policy on refugees. These are funny, topsy-turvy times, when no familiar call for equality and decency cannot be dipped in moonshine and shot back.
But Sunak has done himself no favors. When it came out last year that he had to be taught how to use contactless card payments, even people outside the Westminster bubble wondered, “How rich is this guy, anyway? Does he have a 24-hour valet? Or does he just never have to pay for anything? Do all transactions take place a few rungs below his imperial seat?” It also didn’t help that the local electricity grid had to be beefed up to power his swimming pool, gym and tennis courts. The poor (obscenely rich) guy couldn’t win: Even when he said he was paying for the grid upgrade himself, it only raised more questions, e.g. “Who heats his tennis courts?”; “I wonder how much it costs to upgrade the grid – more or less than a car made of diamonds?”; “Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of us could afford energy?”; “Why can’t you use your local pool?”. Oh yes, because it can’t afford to stay open, fair play.
When it was revealed in June that Sunak had donated £2.4 million to a computer lab at the elite Claremont McKenna college in California, having already given £100,000 to the elite boarding school in Winchester he attended while the parents’ council at his local primary school struggled to raise more than a third of the £15,000 target for new computers, I’m sure he hoped we’d get this on the record: “What we already know: He’s rich, okay? He’s not going to get any less rich. It doesn’t work that way.”
The good news for Sunak is that the nation has done just that. We’ve sorted all this information into one giant category called “rich people” so that the finer distinctions of his choice have been muted. What is it anyway to focus your philanthropy on other rich people and ignore the need on your own doorstep? Clueless? Selfish? Doesn’t matter. It’s just “something rich people do”. His only viable campaign message now would be something like this: “I must care a lot about the nation; why else would I do this to myself when I’m so incredibly rich?” But that will probably be filed under “meh”: “Oh, only rich people say that.”