Perhaps I should stress from the get-go that I do not know Rishi Sunak. So far as I know, we’ve only met once, some years ago when he was working at the think-tank Policy Exchange. He showed me to my seat when I arrived late for an event. It is one of those things you must get used to in this life – that the person you last saw helping you into a folding chair will just a few years later be Chancellor of the Exchequer.
When I first noticed this tendency, a wise older friend cautioned me against feeling concern about it. Best to accept it as part of life’s great dance. In fact, my friend stressed, you shouldn’t even worry about it when some of the dimmest people you’ve met (not that Sunak fits that bill) arrive into the great offices of state. The only thing that should alarm you is if a boy you remember from school as a cheat ends up as your surgeon. My friend swore blind that this happened to him. A boy he had last seen at prep school copying maths answers off his cuff was next seen peering over him with hearty ‘hail fellow well met’ greetings as he wheeled him into the operating theatre. So a sense of perspective is required here, as always.
Yet I only mention my non-relationship with Sunak because Westminster is an incestuous place and I feel it incumbent upon me to stress that what I am about to say comes with no private agenda. So here it is: I feel sorry for Rishi Sunak over the way he has been treated in recent days.
Politics is not a pleasant thing to go into in Britain. Most likely it never was, but in the current era it seems especially so. If you become an MP you must perforce give up all hopes of a private life. You can’t even have photos emerge of you dressed in a nice ladies’ negligee without having to suddenly make some great public announcement about your sexual status.
You must also give up all hopes of making any particularly great living. Aha, I hear a few of you say, but MPs are paid £84,000 a year, which is significantly more than the average household income in the UK. And that is true. But for this money MPs must support two households. A few must support two families. They are all out of pocket after their initial run for office – from renting apartments in places they hope to gain a seat in, for instance. It costs tens of thousands of pounds just to run unsuccessfully for parliament. And if you win it is not as though you are then greatly in funds. Try getting a mortgage on a flat in Westminster with a baseline earning of even £84,000.
Of course, some MPs try to bring in extra cash. Geoffrey Cox is no longer in the cabinet and is intermittently berated for earning money from his part-time job as a lawyer. But we know that being an MP is a part-time job, otherwise MPs would not be able to join the cabinet. It remains unclear what we imagine MPs should be allowed to do with their spare time. Perhaps we think they shouldn’t have any. But in any case, they always seem to get into trouble when they use that time to supplement their earnings.
Or at least some of them do. The Labour MP Wes Streeting has started working on the side as a radio presenter. Labour MP Jess Phillips earned £15,000 from a single appearance on the BBC, fruitlessly trying to make Have I Got News for You funny again. David Lammy MP, generally a scourge of higher earners, rakes in about £50,000 each year through lucrative deals in the media. Perhaps you also spy a pattern here?
Rishi Sunak, by contrast, made lots of money before entering politics. And good for him, I say. Unlike many of my fellow countrymen, I admire anyone who manages to make their own money. Worse, in the eyes of many, is that Sunak married Akshata Murthy, a rather beautiful Indian woman who is heir to a very significant fortune. But again, good for him, say I. If Murthy were in the singles market I’d probably have a crack at marrying her myself.
I’m not sure who we think our MPs should marry. In recent days various Labour MPs have tried to pretend that there is some limit to the amount of money a Chancellor and his family should have – but it isn’t at all clear what that level should be. I suspect it is a sum only just above whatever they rake in themselves.
Still, I cannot go along with their logic. I am happy that the man in charge of the Exchequer is successful in his own right and even more comfortably off through marriage. It is certainly better than if he was a man of notoriously chaotic personal finances, constantly in debt and a subject of ceaseless interest to the bailiffs. So far as I can see, the only failure of judgment Sunak has made is that he did not persuade his wife to stop being a non-dom the moment he went into politics.
But that’s a hard conversation to have. He should probably have done it around the time he was so memorably guiding me to my folding chair. Perhaps he didn’t think his rise would be this swift. I certainly didn’t. I imagine he just thought it was something that could be addressed another day.
I hear Sunak is now on the verge of quitting after the police decided to fine him for standing in the same room as the Prime Minister while he was handed a cake. But even before the return of partygate, there were rumours Sunak was considering resigning. I hope he doesn´t. We need successful people in frontline politics. Indeed, there should be more of them. I'd take Sunak any day over a person filled with resentment and spite who imagines Westminster to be a forum to carry out revenge attacks on anyone who has been successful in life. I mean, have you ever seen a SNP MP? If not then you should study one and get back to me.