Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, once regarded by the vast majority of Indian voters as “racist” and anti-immigration, likes to boast it produced the nation’s first Jewish Prime Minister (Benjamin Disraeli) and the first woman Premier (Margaret Thatcher). However, is it really ready to hand over the keys to 10 Downing Street, to someone who is not white?
Just as important, are the British people as a whole ready to accept an Indian as Prime Minister?
“I think it is more than ready,” Michael Ashcroft, a Tory peer who is a former treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, assures The Telegraph in an exclusive interview.
He has written a remarkably well-researched biography, the first on the chancellor, Going for Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak.
Given the detail about his subject’s family background, it is clear Ashcroft had access to Sunak and the author has admitted the chancellor did not forbid access to people who knew him — as David Cameron did with his less than flattering biography.
Sunak was born on May 12, 1980, in Southampton, Hampshire, to Hindu Punjabi parents, Yashvir and Usha Sunak, who came from East Africa. His father worked as a GP, his mother as a pharmacist.
Of course, it is well known that Rishi is married to Akshata, the daughter of Infosys founder N. R. Narayana Murthy, but their relationship began before her father became one of the richest men in India.
However, in political terms, Sunak, just 40, is still a “baby”. He was elected to Parliament only five years ago, taking over one of the safest Tory seats in the country —Richmond in Yorkshire — from William Hague, a former Tory leader and foreign secretary. It’s a rural constituency with very few Indian voters.
Some people say Rishi is popular because he has been very generous with hand outs during the pandemic and that his popularity will dip once he is forced to claw back the money through punitive taxes as he seeks to balance the books.
Ashcroft points out: “One good sign is his adoption as the Conservative candidate by one of the least ethnically diverse constituencies in the country. I don’t think the candidates’ ethnicity would be foremost in people’s minds in any leadership election, but I think the Tories would actually take some satisfaction in having the first leader from an ethnic minority — just as they had the first (and second) woman Prime Minister, and the first (and second) chancellor and home secretary from an Asian background.”
When it comes to politics, Ashcroft is a pro, and he says about Rishi’s ethnicity: “Having spent years doing political research, as well as being involved in politics more generally, I honestly don’t think those things matter to the vast majority of voters. People like Rishi because they think he’s doing a good job in the circumstances and is actually trying to help, and I think that counts far more than his background. I think the same applies when people on the Left attack him for being rich — by the way, voters are much more interested in whether you seem decent and competent than they are in your wealth or family background or ethnicity or anything of that nature.”
Asked whether Rishi’s career depended on the patronage of Boris Johnson, Ashcroft argues: “He might have been dependent on Boris in the early days, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think he has now established himself as a major figure in his own right. On the patronage point, there is really nothing else Boris can promote him to — and since you mention Sajid Javid, for Boris to lose a second chancellor would look like carelessness.
“Arguably, for Rishi to go would be more of a crisis for Boris than for him. As for whether he has an ‘independent political base’, you’re right that he doesn’t have his own gang or faction, but I think he has won the confidence of a lot of MPs, and has certainly got himself noticed by the voters.”
So I think his future career is now in his own hands and that of the electorate.”
Before giving his exclusive interview, Ashcroft launched his book with a question and answer session with the well-informed Paul Goodman, a former Tory MP and Daily Telegraph journalist and now editor of the “independent” website, ConservativeHome.
Ashcroft told Goodman: “I did not want this book to be a hagiography. And those of you who read Call me Dave, my biography of David Cameron, well know that I’m not exactly afraid to reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly. But perhaps the single most remarkable feature of Sunak’s rise is how few enemies he has made along the way, a most unusual achievement in the world of politics. Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about the guy.”
For Diwali, Rishi was photographed lighting diwas in Downing Street.