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Sunack and Johnson clap for the NHS, shortly before the latter’s Covid-19 diagnosis. PA/Aaron Chown

Rishi Sunak: can the UK’s bright young chancellor change British politics?

To many, the appointment of Rishi Sunak as the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer – one of the most important jobs in government – on February 13 was a strong indication that Boris Johnson, the prime minister, did not wish to negotiate over the budget. During the week leading up to a cabinet-wide reshuffle, the former chancellor Sajid Javid’s fiscal conservatism and unwillingness to increase spending, as per the Conservative manifesto, had created tension with the prime minister and it looked like he’d chosen someone altogether less troublesome in Sunak. Now, however, the newcomer seems to have become the star of the show.

Sunak graduated from Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics(PPE). This puts him in the company of a large group of British politicians across parties. Yet, Sunak’s appointment is unprecedented. Despite his educational credentials, he landed the second most important job in government with very little political experience. In fact, he only entered parliament as MP for Richmond, Yorkshire, in May 2015.

Straight to the top

Based on my data on the background of finance ministers, Sunak is the first British chancellor who, at the time of his appointment, had been in parliament for fewer than five years. He is also, effectively, the first to be appointed with no full cabinet experience, either in government or opposition (Norman Lamont, another investment banker, also lacked cabinet experience but had spent a lot longer in parliament and had a number of posts as a junior minister). On average, British finance ministers have a cabinet experience of five years and will have been members of parliament for more than 15.

No wonder so many people predicted that Sunak would be a puppet. The academic literature also backs up this view. Research on German finance ministers found that their political experience and political clout was the most important predictor for delivering balanced budgets.

Nonetheless, the political experience of finance ministers varies significantly across countries. Although the average tenure of cabinet ministers prior to their appointment to the finance portfolio is similar to that of Britain’s, about 20% of finance ministers in a sample of 18 parliamentary countries over 60 years were appointed with no prior experience in the government. About 10% of them were technocrats, or else, non-elected experts.

Sunak’s professional background is also uncommon for British politics. He had a distinguished career in investment banking prior to entering politics, despite his young age. Banking experience might seem “appropriate” for a chancellor but it’s not a common professional background for British politicians – even those overseeing the finance portfolio.

While the prime minister stays in isolation … PA

In my data, the only British chancellors with a professional background in investment banking are Sunak’s predecessor, Javid and Lamont. Both are Conservative politicians, which corresponds with recent research on the backgrounds of finance ministers in a large sample of countries. Across countries, around 5% of finance ministers have a professional background in private banking. In contrast, professors (often of economics) account for around 20% of finance ministers.

However, Sunak’s trajectory to the top job becomes less surprising when we consider that he had acted as the PM’s representative during the election debates. He is an honest supporter of Brexit and his policies as the chief secretary to the treasury were more in line with those of Johnson than with his boss and predecessor, Javid. Already after the 2019 elections, Sunak was tipped to be promoted to a cabinet portfolio.

What next for the new chancellor?

The coronavirus crisis has again boosted Sunak’s profile. He’s been a leading figure in the response and is once again in an unprecedented position – that of a Conservative chancellor announcing £60 billion to help businesses and people struggling because of the pandemic, despite severe consequences for the budget. While the government itself is under fire for its failings, Sunak remains incredibly popular. He is more popular than Johnson, according to one recent poll.

It may only be a matter of time before Sunak is seen as a challenger to Johnson. According to another recent poll, the majority of respondents prefer Sunak to stand in for the prime minister if the latter becomes too ill from the virus to lead – instead of Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary who also has the title of first secretary of state.

The position of chancellor is indeed often a stepping stone to the premiership. But Sunak lacks an independent political base. Unless he is exceptionally charismatic or a political genius, it seems unlikely that he could become the next party leader. And in truth, his profile resembles more of a technocrat who is appointed to do a specific job that falls within their expertise.

Yet, there is a different possible interpretation of these facts. Here is a politician who rose to the limelight very quickly. Colleagues admire his analytical ability. He appears loyal to the prime minister – one might wonder why a fiscal hawk like him aligned with the PM over spending. Importantly, too, he already seems to appeal across party lines. In a surprising twist, Frances O'Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, an organisation aligned to the Labour Party, praised Sunak for showing leadership with the budget measures against the virus crisis.

Perhaps Sunak really could be the man who will change British politics. Perhaps he is the next Emmanuel Macron. There was another young, investment banker with no political experience prior to his appointment to the portfolio of the economy and industry who went on to take the top job.

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