Is Rishi Sunak too rich to be Prime Minister?

Rishi Sunak’s personal fortune is back in the spotlight as he enters Downing Street. Can he persuade the public that he understands the cost of living crisis, asks Nick Mitchell

<p>Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father owns a multi-billion pound IT firm (AFP via Getty Images)</p>

Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father owns a multi-billion pound IT firm (AFP via Getty Images)

The answer to the question at the top of this article is, of course, no, Rishi Sunak is clearly not too rich to be Prime Minister, as events of this week demonstrate. There are no rules about this in the job description. Rather, the pertinent question is: will Rishi Sunak’s wealth become a problem for him in the top job?

When the UK’s new PM was pictured being greeted by the King at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, it almost seemed as if the monarch was bowing in deference to the politician. Perhaps Charles was just relieved that Liz Truss (who reportedly blocked him from attending the COP27 climate summit next month) is gone, or perhaps he was subconsciously aware that he was meeting a man with more material wealth to his name.

On his return from the Palace to Downing Street, Sunak said in his maiden speech that he understands “how difficult this moment is”, adding that “I fully appreciate how hard things are”. However, a new poll from YouGov reveals that two-thirds of the public believe the new prime minister is “out of touch” with ordinary people.

King Charles III welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace (PA)

In truth, Sunak is the first leader who could reasonably boast that he’s more minted than the monarchy. As has been widely reported, he is independently wealthy from his pre-political career in the City and Silicon Valley, but it is his wife Akshata Murty’s fortune - as daughter of the Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy - that puts Sunak in a different stratosphere from any parliamentarian that’s gone before. She is one of the richest women in Britain, thanks to her 0.91% stake in her father’s Infosys IT corporation, which is estimated to be worth between £400 million and £500 million. The latest Sunday Times Rich List put their combined net worth at a staggering £730 million.

While it has been noted that Sunak’s Indian heritage marks a historic first in the history of Downing Street, this has been overshadowed by his spectacular riches, and expensive tastes. His public image was weaponised against him in the Tory leadership race in the summer, when Truss supporter Nadine Dorries tweeted newspaper reports that Sunak wore a custom-made suit worth £3,500, and had paid a visit to Teesside in Prada loafers worth £450. In 2020, a pre-Budget staged photo showed that he sips his coffee from an Ember “smart mug” that retails at £180.

His property portfolio has also come under scrutiny, after it emerged that he still held a US green card while Chancellor and that his wife held non dom tax status in the UK. This consists of four properties across the world with a value of more than £15 million - including a beach penthouse in Santa Monica in Los Angeles, which is valued at £5.5 million alone.

Rishi Sunak leaves his house in London - one of four properties he owns (PA)

The Sunak family - the couple have two daughters, Krishna and Anoushka - spend most of their week at a five-bedroom mews house in Kensington (estimated price tag: £7 million), and on weekends they decamp to their historic Georgian manor house in the village of Kirby Sigston in his Richmond constituency in Yorkshire. Southampton-born Sunak bought the latter retreat for £1.5 million before he was elected as an MP for the area in 2015.

It is now worth more than £2 million and its amenities include a £400,000 indoor swimming pool, a yoga studio, gym, hot tub and tennis court. It has recently been pointed out that the rising energy costs could mean it costs more than £14,000 a year to heat the not insubstantial pool. Back in London, the Sunak family can also make use of a flat on Old Brompton Road for any visiting family members who can’t fit into the Kensington house.

While no-one is disputing the fact that Sunak and his family are entitled to enjoy the riches they’ve amassed, it’s clearly a problem of optics for the new Prime Minister, especially during a cost of living crisis that’s likely to last until the next general election and beyond. The danger for him, as polling proves, is that he looks completely out of touch - one of the dreaded ‘global elite’ who populist politicians like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump (both hardly paupers themselves) were so keen to demonise over recent years.

Sunak doesn’t do himself any favours in photo opportunities either, whether it’s his failure to understand how to use a contactless bank card while trying to buy a can of Coke, or the time he awkwardly tried to fill up a Kia Rio at a Sainsbury’s petrol station - the car turned out to belong to an employee at the supermarket (Sunak’s family use four cars, including a top-of-the-range Lexus and a high-end Range Rover).

If even fellow Tories have used his opulent lifestyle against him, then we can be sure that it will become a go-to attack line for Labour - despite their talk that they don’t want to make it personal. Much political capital was made from an archive clip from a 2001 BBC documentary on class, where a young Sunak says: "I have friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper-class, I have friends who are working class – well, not working class.” And on Monday, Labour MP Nadia Whittome tweeted that his wealth is “twice” that of the King. “Remember this whenever he talks about making ‘tough decisions’ that working class people will pay for," she added.

In America, Trump’s wealth was often regarded as a political strength, as he could paint himself as a business success story (when he was really anything but). However, the UK is a very different society, with very different values, and it remains to be seen whether Sunak can keep his immense wealth - much of which is kept in a blind trust away from prying eyes - out of the public discourse.