Is British leader Rishi Sunak too rich to rule in difficult times?


LONDON — As he makes tough decisions to stem Britain’s economic crisis, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he will “always protect the most vulnerable”.

But Britain’s first prime minister of color is also its richest leader of all time – an ex-banker who once wore Prada loafers to visit a construction site and whose family fortune is estimated at 730 million pounds (826 millions of dollars).

Critics wonder if Sunak can understand the desperation many Britons feel as the economy reels under the combined weight of COVID-19, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and late Prime Minister Liz’s counterproductive policies. Truss.

Sunak, who took office on Tuesday, plans to cut state pensions and benefits to help cut billions from the Treasury bill. Meanwhile, inflation hit a 40-year high of 10.1%, and the cost of everyday items rose again – pasta by 60%, tea by 46%, bread by 38% last year, according to government figures.

A bag of frozen chips went from 99 pence ($1.15) to 1.37 pounds ($1.61); a two-quart jug of milk fell from 1.17 pounds ($1.35) to 1.52 ($1.76) in the year to September.

“I don’t think you can understand what normal people are going through if your wealth is in the region of £730m, it’s just crazy,” said Megan Hooper, a mental health worker in London. “You can’t understand what people are going through who live on $20,000 a year.”

Hooper said it makes her “sick” that Sunak hasn’t promised to keep pensions and benefits growing in line with inflation when the government presents its tax and spending plans on Nov. 17.

“I just don’t think there’s any hope of him doing anything to help the poorest,” she said.

As prime minister, Sunak earns 164,000 pounds ($190,000) a year, five times the average full-time salary in the UK, but just a fraction of his wealth.

Before being elected to parliament in 2015, Sunak worked for investment bank Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager, amassing an undisclosed personal fortune. British prime ministers are not required to publish their tax returns and Sunak’s investments are kept out of sight in a blind trust while he is in government.

Most of his fortune comes from his wife, Akshata Murty, whose billionaire father founded the Indian IT company Infosys. The Sunday Times estimated his 0.93% stake in the company was worth 690 million pounds ($800 million). By most estimates, the couple are wealthier than King Charles III.

Sunak’s new job includes an official flat in London’s Downing Street, but the family already owns several properties, including a family home in London, a 200-year-old mansion in the northern English district he represents in Parliament and a penthouse apartment in Santa Monica, California.

Sunak doesn’t show off his wealth, but his expensive clothes and accessories have already raised eyebrows. The Prada suede loafers he wore in July sell for around $600, and he’s once been photographed at work with a “smart” $200 coffee mug on his desk.

Marc Stears, head of the UCL Policy Lab at University College London, said Sunak’s privileged adulthood had led him to blunders, such as filling up a borrowed car for a photo shoot at a station -service, then seem to not know how to pay.

“He just doesn’t have the experiences that most people have, and therefore when he tries to pretend he has, they backfire, and it seems extremely embarrassing,” Stears said.

Sunak emphasized that he was not born rich. His father and mother are an Indian-born family doctor and pharmacist who came to the UK in the 1960s from East Africa. In his youth, he delivered medicine from his mother’s pharmacy and worked as a waiter in an Indian restaurant.

He says his parents saved up to send him to Winchester College, one of Britain’s most expensive and exclusive boarding schools, where he blended into the elite. Sunak went on to earn an undergraduate degree at Oxford University and then an MBA at Stanford University, where he met his future wife.

“As a Tory I believe in hard work and aspiration and that’s my story,” he told the BBC earlier this year. “I don’t judge people by their bank accounts, I judge them by their character. And I think people can judge me on my actions over the past two years.

Sunak rose to popularity during the pandemic, when as Treasury chief he spent billions to help laid-off workers and shuttered businesses stay afloat. But his image was tarnished when it was revealed in April that his wife paid no UK tax on her overseas income, including £11.5million a year in Infosys dividends.

The practice of being “non-domiciled” for tax purposes was legal, but it seemed insensitive at best at a time when Sunak was raising taxes on millions of Britons. Sunak has also been criticized for keeping his US green card, meaning an intention to move to the United States, for two years after becoming Britain’s finance minister.

Opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer mentioned Murty’s tax status during Sunak’s first Prime Minister’s Question Session in Parliament on Wednesday. It also featured a recording of Sunak bragging to local conservative activists about how he funneled funds from “deprived urban areas” to affluent neighborhoods like theirs.

But Stears, a former Labor speechwriter, warned the opposition against attacking Sunak for his wealth because most voters “think all politicians are rich”.

“In most people’s minds, politicians are at the top of society, kinda weird and disconnected people in some ways,” he said.

He said Sunak shouldn’t try to hide his wealth behind an ordinary man’s facade.

“Audiences have very strong antennae for authenticity,” he said.

Some voters say they are relaxed about Sunak’s fortunes and ready to judge him on his actions.

“He worked for it,” said retiree Terry Welsh. “It’s not like he inherited his own money. He worked hard, he worked for various investment companies and all kinds of things. So his money belongs to him.

Kwiyeon Ha contributed to this story.

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