BRITAIN is ready for an Asian prime minister, Rishi Sunak has said, as the prime ministerial hopeful revealed he was “stung” by racism as a child, but now believes Conservative voters will judge him on his policies, rather than his ethnicity, in the leadership race.
In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with Eastern Eye last Friday (26), Sunak, 42, said he was able to persuade previously undecided Tory members to support him, despite trailing in opinion polls.
“I’m winning the argument that my plan, my priorities, are the right ones for our country,” Sunak said.
While the former chancellor and MP for Richmond, Yorkshire, had a lead over rival Liz Truss, in the initial phase of the race (when MPs voted), he has consistently lagged the foreign secretary in subsequent opinion polls.
Undaunted, Sunak insisted the leadership contest was about “character and who’s got the right vision”.
As chancellor during the pandemic, Sunak enjoyed high personal ratings, but his popularity has taken a hit since revelations earlier this year about the tax status of his wife, Akshata Murty, and her vast personal wealth. Her father, Narayana Murthy, co-founded Infosys, an IT major in India.
Some Tory voters also saw Sunak’s sudden resignation as chancellor in July as a betrayal of support for prime minister Boris Johnson.
With millions of families facing a cost-of-living crisis and rising energy prices, Sunak was confident that his personal wealth was not an issue with voters.
“In our country, actually, people judge you ultimately by your character, and by your actions, not by what’s in your bank account,” he told Eastern Eye.
“And people can see what I’ve done. They’ve seen me as a chancellor through a pretty tough period over the last two-and-a-half years.
“I delivered for the country, particularly for those who really needed help.
“But I wasn’t born like this. I grew up differently and worked hard for what I have. And I’m proud of that. We should have a country that supports and celebrates people who are working hard and building a better life for them and their kids. That’s a very Conservative value, supporting that type of aspiration.
“I would want to build a government which supported that.”
Sunak was born in Southampton in May 1980 to British Punjabi parents. His father Yashvir was a GP, while his mother, Usha, ran a pharmacy. He went to Winchester, a private school, before graduating from Oxford and getting an MBA from Stanford University.
It was a privileged childhood, but like most immigrants at the time, Sunak said he too faced racial prejudice.
He said, “I experienced racism, of course I did. And it stung me in a way that very few things have. Racism is abhorrent. But I take enormous comfort from the fact that the things that maybe happened to me as a kid almost certainly would not happen today.
“Or if they did, people will react to them very, very differently to how they did when I was younger, and that shows the enormous progress we’ve made as a country in tackling these issues.
“Our country has got a fantastic track record on this, compared to almost any other place that I know. It’s improved immeasurably. And, of course, we constantly seek ways to make it better.”
Did he think race was a factor in his chances for the top job?
“No, gosh, no, not at all. Our party has got an incredible record in promoting people who are good at what they do,” Sunak said. “And whatever happens in this leadership contest, we are going to have either our third female prime minister, or our second ethnic minority prime minister, after Benjamin Disraeli, or the first prime minister who’s not white, and it’s the Conservative party that has produced all of that.
“That’s something we all should be really proud of.
“Look, I’ve already been the chancellor who was able to light Diwali diyas (lamps) and sparklers with my kids and my wife, and (have) a rangoli on Downing Street.
“And I know lots of your readers will have probably watched a video of me doing that. People still talk to me about that. It was a proud moment for me. It was a proud moment for millions of British Asians here.
“But it is also a proud moment for our country. That’s the extraordinary thing about Britain. It’s why so many of us are here. We have a bright future ahead. And I’m hoping I’m the person that can lead us to that place.”
On the campaign trail, Sunak’s focus has been on reviving the economy in the face of rising inflation and energy costs, reforming the NHS and revising the school curriculum to put British students on par – according to him – with those from other developed countries.
His town hall-style meetings have included 600-strong audiences and more intimate gatherings with dozens of members, such as the one in Beckenham last Friday. There were questions about the economy, civil service, foreign policy, jobs and illegal immigration. Sunak stayed on message, but despite the oft-repeated lines in what has been a lengthy contest, his easy charm is undeniable.
“I’m going to keep going till the end of the contest and talking to as many people as I can,” Sunak told Eastern Eye.
One of the stops on his campaign last Wednesday (24) was in Southampton at the Bassett Pharmacy, which used to be run by his family. Sunak has spoken about helping his mother with filling in prescriptions and doing the accounts.
Despite the key role the sector played during the pandemic, pharmacists have sought help to face funding pressures.
Sunak said NHS reform was key, “because the answer can’t always be more and more money”.
His argument is that providing more funding means it’s going to be hard to keep people’s taxes low.
He told Eastern Eye, “In general, I’m a big supporter of pharmacies – having grown up and worked in one, I know the great job that pharmacists do. And over time, they have done more and more. A pharmacy today does far more than it did when I worked for my mum.
“And I know when I visit pharmacies, now they are very keen to do more. That’s something we should definitely work through, because it’s care that’s very close to people. It’s very quick, it’s very convenient, people respond really well to it. And if that frees up some of the pressure elsewhere in our healthcare system, that can be a good thing. So it’s certainly something that I’d be open to looking at.”
Tackling illegal immigration has been another area of concern for Tory voters after the EU referendum. Sunak, a Brexiteer, has been vocal about reducing the number of small boats carrying refugees that are arriving on UK shores, as he said it “undermines trust in the system”.
But, immigration, he said, has been good for Britain. “I wouldn’t be here. I’ve already got a personal, vested interest. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for that. But migration has got to be legal. It’s got to be fair,” he added.
This year marks the 50th year of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin. Many thousands of families fled overnight and arrived in Britain, ready to start building new lives.
How does he view their contribution to the UK? “Obviously, it’s been fantastic,” Sunak said. “You’ve got people who are serving in cabinet right now.
“Everyone knows the contribution of lots of different migrant communities to our country has been very powerful, but it works best when people coming here are also integrating into our communities.
“What is really important is that it’s got to work both ways. Because I can be both British and Asian. It’s completely comfortable for me to have both those identities, but it’s vitally important that everyone coming here – from whatever background – integrates into our way of life, our society, values, our culture.”
Should he win, Sunak also said Britain would seek a close relationship with India, one which was “balanced” and enabled both sides to enjoy the benefits of stronger ties. “I want to make sure the benefits are flowing both ways. We can learn as much from India as India can learn from us. India is a close ally and partner of the UK, and it would be something I would endeavour to continue.”
Whoever wins the Tory leadership race next Monday (5) faces tough decisions on the economy and helping business as well as ordinary families.
Energy regulator Ofgem said last Friday that British energy bills will jump 80 per cent to an average of £3,549 a year from October, raising the risk of people slipping into fuel poverty or businesses facing jeopardy unless the government steps in to help.
Sunak acknowledged the challenges ahead, but recalled how as chancellor, he cut business rates for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses by 50 per cent.
“It’s a very significant tax cut for those businesses. We also cut the national insurance bills by £1,000 for small businesses. So, that also puts more money in their bank accounts,” he said.
“But, look, I know this is a challenge going forward. Of course, I would look at it as prime minister.
“And again, people can look at my actions during the pandemic, where I moved swiftly and quite comprehensively to support businesses through what I knew was a challenging period.
“I ensured that we didn’t have a wave of business failures that people were predicting. We didn’t have a wave of unemployment that people were predicting. And that’s because of the interventions I put in place.
“So, people can trust me that I know what to do, when the moment demands.
Sunak dishes on dosa and teaching his daughters cricket
Rishi Sunak has spoken of how his love for cricket straddles his dual identities as a British Asian.
The father of two also told Eastern Eye he was teaching the game to his young daughters and why he fell in love with his wife, Akshata Murty.
“I’m a huge cricket fan. I’ve just been teaching my kids to play. It’s been very exciting with my two girls,” he said. “Funnily enough, today, at one of my events, I met someone who runs a small company making cricket bats that I know I actually used and played with when I was younger, because we had them at our school.”
He also revealed he tries to keep things light-hearted around his girls, Anoushka and Krishna, and is a good listener, because “my daughters are becoming that age where I’d like to make sure they can talk to their parents”.
Sunak, who met his wife while he was a student at Stanford, said the most important thing was to “respect the person you love”.
He told Eastern Eye, “I have enormous respect for my wife, as well as, obviously, loving her and caring for her a great deal. She’s an enormous support to me, but actually, that’s founded on a solid starting point. It is about respect and admiration for who she is and everything that she does – as a mother, as a businesswoman, and as a person. That’s why I fell in love with her.”