Rishi Rich: Is Sunak's Wealth Too Much For Struggling Voters?

Opposition parties say he's out of touch – but do ordinary people really care?
Opposition parties have targeted Sunak's wealth as a weakness in the current economic climate.
Opposition parties have targeted Sunak's wealth as a weakness in the current economic climate.
Benjamin Currie/HuffPost

Sometime in politics, perception is everything.

Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg last weekend, Rishi Sunak said the government must “hold our nerve” in the quest to bring down inflation, even if it means higher interest rates for a while.

However, his comments were interpreted as a message to the country at large, that we all just have to suck up higher mortgage and rent costs, on top of rising food and energy bills, until things get better at some point in the future.

Coming from any prime minister that would be a tough political message to sell; coming from one as personally wealthy – and mortgage-free – as Sunak, it is even tougher.

And while politicians’ personal financial circumstances are usually off-limits, the PM’s opponents spot a major weakness and are beginning to take advantage.

At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn asked Sunak: “May I ask him, the near billionaire, when was the last time that he struggled to pay a bill?”

The fact that he completely avoided answering the question merely confirmed how uncomfortable this topic is for the PM.

Labour leader Keir Starmer also made a point of mentioning this week that his own mortgage has gone up – a less-than-subtle invitation for voters to compare his situation with that of the prime minister.

Gabriel Milland, partner for research at Portland Communications, has carried out focus groups across the country, gauging the views of ordinary voters on the main issues of the day. His findings are a mixed bag for Sunk.

“Generally speaking, it’s not as if voters have a problem with Sunak being wealthy per se,” he told HuffPost UK.

“You have to remember that the kind of salaries that all MPs, let alone frontbenchers, earn places them far above average or median earnings. To most people, all politicians are very well off.

“Where it does become a problem is if politicians appear to be trying to be something that they are not. Boris Johnson never made any bones about the fact that he is, relatively speaking, very posh. Even working class voters accepted him for that.

“What absolutely did cut through in the groups last year was the incident with the contactless payment card and and when he filled up a car with petrol and it turned out not to be his.”

Milland added: “There’s a danger of over-stating all this though. What the public absolutely do want is the sense that the government on their side and doing stuff to help them.

“They’re not that bothered if Sunak himself is facing the same sort of worries over his gas bill that they are.”

However, a senior Labour source said that their own focus groups suggest voters can make the distinction between a PM who is wealthy but seemingly in touch with their concerns – like David Cameron – and one whose unimaginable fortune means he has no idea about ordinary people’s lives.

“We’ve always tried to avoid doing stuff on him being rich, but gradually we’ve started to pick up that people see him as being out of touch,” he told HuffPost UK.

“In focus groups we gets lots of ‘he’s a billionaire’ and ‘he’s part of the jet set elite’.”

This is confirmed by research carried out in April by the More in Common think tank, in which one voter described the prime minister as “far too rich for my liking”.

Another added: “Someone who’s grown up within the wealth that surrounds him and always has done can’t possibly understand what it’s like for somebody like me.”

The Labour source said that rather than directly attack Sunak’s wealth, they want to convince the public that he’s out of touch with their concerns.

“It’s not how much money that’s in his bank account that matters, it’s things like the US green card, his wife’s non-dom status and him flying round the country in a helicopter,” they said.

“It builds up a picture of someone who’s out of touch and doesn’t have any idea of how you live your life.”

Sunak has been criticised for his preference for private jets rather than train travel
Sunak has been criticised for his preference for private jets rather than train travel
No10 Downing Street

Sunak’s huge personal fortune is at least some comfort for him after another dreadful few days in Number 10.

It was supposed to be ‘NHS week’, when the government set out how it would tackle the many problems facing the health service and culminating in the long-awaited workforce plan setting out a strategy to recruit more doctors and nurses.

But the PM was blown off course by the latest twists in the partygate saga, the Rwanda policy being ruled illegal by the Court of Appeal and, finally, the dramatic resignation from the government of Zac Goldsmith.

Rumours are rife that the PM might try to reset his government with a pre-summer recess reshuffle in what many will see as a last-ditch attempt to save a premiership that is barely eight months old.

As one gloomy Tory aide observed: “There can’t be any more wheels to fall off of this particular shit wagon.”


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