Johnson’s ‘favourite minister’ tipped for new job

Rishi Sunak, the Treasury chief secretary who stood in for Boris Johnson in television debates during the general election campaign, is being tipped by senior Tories to run a new economic super-ministry after a big cabinet reshuffle due in February.

Conservatives close to the prime minister said Mr Sunak’s performance during the election put him in line for promotion to a full cabinet portfolio in the reshuffle.

“Rishi is a superstar, he keeps to the line and proved himself to be a calm, able debater,” said one Tory official, adding he would be a “perfect fit” for the economic super-ministry being considered by Mr Johnson.

The prime minister is expected to create a beefed-up business ministry — absorbing the international trade department — with a remit to attract inward investment and “level up” Britain’s economy by targeting help at poorer areas including parts of the midlands and northern England.

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gestures next to Labour Party's Richard Bergen and Conservatives' Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak during an election debate in London, Britain December 1, 2019. Matt Frost/ITV/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. PICTURE AVAILABLE FOR USE ONLY UNTIL DECEMBER 19TH 2019.
Rishi Sunak, right, impressed when he stood in for Boris Johnson during TV debates against Labour’s Richard Burgon and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon © Matt Frost/ITV/Reuters

According to senior Conservatives, Mr Sunak is Mr Johnson’s “favourite minister”: a safe pair of hands trusted to carry the Tory message, partly because he is a true Brexit believer.

Mr Sunak’s friends admitted he was not yet a fully formed debater. When he stood in for Mr Johnson in two TV election debates, he at times appeared slightly nervous, and too relentlessly “on message”.

But there was another reason why 39-year-old Mr Sunak had a prominent TV role: Mr Johnson’s desire to project the Tories as a “change” party, even though it has been in power since 2010. “He looks like change,” said one Conservative strategist.

Several ministers believe the Treasury chief secretary will, after doing a stint in a Whitehall “spending department”, return to One Horseguards Road as chancellor. “In cabinet, Boris will often turn to Rishi first on the economy,” said one minister.

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Some Tory MPs are convinced the steep upward ascent of Mr Sunak’s political career puts him on a course to one day become prime minister. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Born in Southampton to parents of Punjabi descent — his father was a family doctor, his mother a pharmacist — Mr Sunak went to Winchester College, one of Britain’s most prestigious private schools.

He became head boy, and told India’s Business Standard newspaper in 2015 that while he found the school “intimidating” initially, it was “intellectually transforming”.

From Winchester he went to Oxford university, where he was awarded a first class degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He then obtained a master of business administration from Stanford University in the US, where he met his wife Akshata, daughter of the billionaire co-founder of Indian outsourcing company Infosys, Narayana Murthy.

Mr Sunak’s business career has involved stints at Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund — neither of which are mentioned in his “about me” web page — before he co-founded an investment business “working with companies from Silicon Valley to Bangalore”.

In 2015 he made the intriguing choice of securing the safe Conservative seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire — a very traditional Tory constituency that was previously held by former Tory leader William Hague.

“British Indian is what I tick on the census,” Mr Sunak told the Business Standard. “I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu.”

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Mr Sunak decided to back Brexit in the 2016 referendum, which at the time seemed like a serious career mistake.

Robert Jenrick, another young minister favoured by Mr Johnson, said Mr Sunak risked retribution from the then premier David Cameron, who had expected to win the referendum. “He took a principled stance,” he added.

Mr Sunak, who was appointed a junior local government minister in 2018 by Theresa May, was an early backer of Mr Johnson’s bid for the Conservative leadership in the summer when she quit as prime minister after failing to secure parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal.

“Rishi was a factor in persuading me to back Boris,” said Mr Jenrick. “He made the point about the gravity of the situation the party found itself in and that you needed a game-changer who had instant credibility on Brexit.”

Mr Sunak was rewarded by Mr Johnson with a move to the Treasury as chief secretary, and put in charge of the prime minister’s first public spending review.

He immediately won plaudits from Treasury officials. “He likes detail, he’s interested in policy,” said one Treasury insider.

If Mr Sunak is made head of the beefed-up business department, his good working relationship with chancellor Sajid Javid could come under strain: the Treasury has always jealously guarded its “economics ministry” functions against interference from elsewhere in Whitehall.

“Rishi says he’s learned politics from Sajid,” said one friend, noting the two had worked together in the local government department. “They are fairly alike. They are both fiscal hawks.”

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