LONDON – As he makes tough decisions to stem Britain’s economic crisis, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he will “always protect the most vulnerable.”
But the U.K.’s first prime minister of color is also its richest-ever leader — an ex-banker who once wore Prada loafers to visit a construction site and whose family fortune is estimated at 730 million pounds ($826 million).
Critics question whether Sunak can understand the desperation many in Britain feel as the economy staggers under the combined weight of COVID-19, Brexit, the Ukraine war and the backfiring policies of departed Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Sunak, who took office Tuesday, is considering whether to trim state pension and welfare benefits to help cut billions from the Treasury's bill. Meanwhile, inflation has hit a 40-year high of 10.1%, and the cost of everyday items has gone up even more — pasta by 60%, tea by 46%, bread by 38% in the past year, according to government figures.
A bag of frozen fries went up from 99 pence ($1.15) to 1.37 pounds ($1.61); a two-quart jug of milk rose 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 go through if your wealth is like 730 million pounds, it’s just crazy,” said Megan Hooper, a mental health worker in London. “You can’t understand what people who live on 20 grand a year go through.”
Hooper said it made her “sick” that Sunak has not promised to keep pensions and benefits growing in line with inflation when the government sets out its tax and spending plans on Nov. 17.
“I just don’t really think that there is any hope that he’s going to do anything to help poorer people,” she said.
As prime minister, Sunak earns 164,000 pounds ($190,000) a year — five times the average full-time U.K. salary, but just a fraction of his wealth.
Before he was 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 held out of sight in a blind trust while he is in government.
The bulk of his fortune comes through his wife, Akshata Murty, whose billionaire father founded the Indian IT company Infosys. The Sunday Times estimated that her 0.93% stake in the firm is worth 690 million pounds ($800 million). By most estimates, the couple is richer than King Charles III.
Sunak’s new job comes with an official apartment in London’s Downing Street, but the family already has multiple properties, including a family house in London, a 200-year-old manor house in the northern England district he represents in Parliament and a penthouse apartment in Santa Monica, California.
Sunak does not flash his wealth, but his expensive clothes and accessories have raised eyebrows before. The suede Prada loafers he wore in July sell for about $600, and he was once photographed at work with a $200 “smart” coffee mug on his desk.
Marc Stears, head of the UCL Policy Lab at University College London, said Sunak’s privileged adulthood has led him into gaffes, like filling up a borrowed car for a photo opportunity at a gas station and then appearing not to know how to pay.
“He just doesn’t have the experiences that most people do, and as a result, when he tries to pretend he does, they backfire, and it looks extremely awkward,” Stears said.
Sunak has stressed that he was not born rich. His father and mother are a family doctor and a pharmacist of Indian descent who came to the U.K. in the 1960s from East Africa. As a youth, he delivered medicines from his mother's pharmacy and worked as a waiter in an Indian restaurant.
He says his parents saved to send him to Winchester College, one of Britain’s most expensive and exclusive boarding schools, where he mingled with the elite. Sunak went on to get an undergraduate degree at Oxford University, then an MBA at Stanford University, where he met his future wife.
“As a Conservative, 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 by my actions over the past couple of years.”
Sunak gained public popularity during the pandemic, when as Treasury chief he spent billions helping laid-off workers and shuttered businesses stay afloat. But his image was tarnished when it was revealed in April that his wife did not pay U.K. tax on her overseas income, including 11.5 million pounds a year in dividends from Infosys.
The practice of being “non-domiciled” for tax purposes was legal, but it looked insensitive at best at a time when Sunak was raising taxes for millions of Britons. Sunak also was criticized for holding on to his American green card, which signifies an intent to settle in the U.S., for two years after he became Britain’s finance minister.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer mentioned Murty’s tax status during Sunak’s first Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament on Wednesday. He also brought up a recording of Sunak boasting to local Conservative activists about how he had channeled funding from “deprived urban areas” into wealthy districts like theirs.
But Stears, a former Labour speechwriter, cautioned the opposition against attacking Sunak for his wealth, because most voters “think that all politicians are wealthy.”
“In most people’s minds, politicians are at the top end of society, slightly strange people and disconnected in certain ways,” he said.
He said Sunak shouldn’t try to hide his wealth behind an ordinary-guy facade.
“The public have got very strong antennae for authenticity,” he said.
Some voters say they are relaxed about Sunak’s fortune and ready to judge him by his actions.
“He’s worked for it,” said retiree Terry Welsh. “It’s not like he has inherited his own money. He’s worked hard, he worked for various investment companies and all sorts of things. So his money is his own.”
Kwiyeon Ha contributed to this story.