Britain’s emboldened political opposition aimed jibes Tuesday at newly-appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over his vast family wealth and past career in investment funds, suggesting he is out of touch amid a rampant cost-of-living crisis.
The Guardian leftwing broadsheet joined the fray, headlining a story: “Does Rishi Sunak’s 730 million pound ($840 million) fortune make him too rich to be PM?”
Critics have suggested the 42-year-old former finance minister is too cushioned from reality to care about ordinary people’s concerns during a period of escalating economic crisis.
“Sunak and his wife sit on a fortune of 730,000,000 pounds. That’s around twice the estimated wealth of King Charles III,” tweeted Labour MP Nadia Whittome.
“Remember this whenever he talks about making ‘tough decisions’ that working class people will pay for.”
Jeremy Corbyn, a former left-wing leader of the main Labour opposition but who now sits as an independent MP, added Sunak “will look after the interests of the 1 percent”.
“The 99 percent will pay for their protection,” he tweeted.
The son of immigrants from India and East Africa, Sunak had a privileged upbringing and went to private schools including the prestigious Winchester College.
After graduating from the University of Oxford, he worked at Goldman Sachs investment management company and two hedge funds, which manage the money of private investors.
His earnings from this period are not known and as a minister he has placed his investments in a non-transparent “blind trust”.
– ‘Hard to swallow’ –
In 2009, he married the daughter of an Indian billionaire, Akshata Murty, who owns a substantial stake in her father’s Infosys software company. Together, the couple are on The Sunday Times rich list with a net worth of 730 million pounds.
Murty’s decision to claim non-domiciled status for tax reasons while living in the UK damaged Sunak’s reputation when it came to light in April, and she later opted to start paying UK tax on her income earned in India.
The Sun on Sunday’s political editor Kate Ferguson tweeted Monday that Labour had decided to attack Sunak with the argument he is “too rich to connect”.
This may reflect public perceptions, with a poll by political researchers Savanta ComRes finding that the word the public most associate with Sunak is “rich”.
“It’s fair to say that ‘rich’ in the UK is probably a pejorative term,” Savanta ComRes political research director Chris Hopkins told AFP, while adding that positive terms such as “capable” and “intelligent” also featured.
Hopkins noted that few in the UK were probably aware of Sunak’s extreme wealth until his wife’s non-dom status emerged, and other Tory politicians, such as finance minister Jeremy Hunt, are also very wealthy.
But the public are likely to find Sunak’s fortune “hard to swallow” when he has to enact tough policies that hit families’ budgets and “his personal wealth is so extreme that he’ll be shielded”, Hopkins said.
– ‘Filthy rich’ –
Many commentators have said the main issue is whether Sunak’s wealth prevents him understanding how others live.
In a country where voters have an ultra-sensitive radar for social class, Sunak has played up his “common people” credentials, frequently talking of working in his family’s pharmacy as a teenager.
But he has made gaffes such as appearing to struggle to pay with a bank card, posing for pictures putting petrol into someone else’s car and wearing Prada loafers at a construction site.
“Being filthy rich does not disqualify someone from being prime minister any more than being dirt poor should,” left-wing tabloid The Mirror wrote in an editorial this summer.
But it said that Sunak “falls down woefully” on “understanding and empathy with ordinary people whose lives depend on the decisions a PM makes.”
Tory peer William Hague defended Sunak on Times Radio as “not bling in any way”.
Former Tory MP Matthew Parris wrote in The Times that the difference in lifestyle between Sunak and opposition counterpart Keir Starmer, a high-flying lawyer, was “minuscule” compared to the gap between the UK’s neediest and its comfortable middle classes.
While Tories traditionally back low taxation and other policies that benefit higher earners, and its MPs often have lucrative sidelines, Sunak’s level of wealth is still eye-catching.
He is unlikely to emulate cash-strapped Johnson, who caused a scandal by using a party donor’s money to pay for trendy renovations at No. 10.
“On the plus side, he can afford his own wallpaper,” quipped financier Manish Singh to Bloomberg news agency. (AFP)