UK PM candidate Rishi Sunak says 'proud' of his ‘role model’ Indian in-laws

‘My father-in-law came from absolutely nothing, and just had a dream and a couple of hundred pounds that my mother-in-law’s savings provided him,’ he said in a TV debate

Rishi Sunak (File image)
Rishi Sunak (File image)

Ashis Ray

The gloves are off; and most observers believed it will be a no-holds-barred fight between Rishi Sunak, 42, and Liz Truss, 46, to become Britain’s next prime minister. The former may have won fellow Conservative MPs’ confidence. But to secure majority support of the 200,000 odd Conservative party members is an altogether different proposition.

The most recent survey of Conservative members carried out by pollsters YouGov indicated that Truss enjoys 54% endorsement to Sunak’s 35%. 11% were reportedly undecided.

With ballot papers being posted out to such members, they will have up to 2 September to cast their votes. They will be able to do so by paper or online. The result will be declared at 12.30 pm London time on September 5.

The expectation is that the electoral college will begin signaling their preferences from the first week of August. Therefore, if Sunak, who is of East African -- Indian origin, is to close the apparent gap in Conservative members’ liking for him, he has not much time to do so.

Other than two televised debates on Channel Four and ITV last weekend – which the whole of the United Kingdom had access to – behind the scenes, the candidates were individually listened to and questioned by Conservative MPs during the first phase of the leadership contest, which involved voting by directly elected Conservative members of the House of Commons only.

On the basis of conclusions reached – whether pre-meditated or after being persuaded – the 355 odd MPs marked Sunak, Oxford and Stanford educated erstwhile banker, first with 137 votes, Truss second with 113 votes and Penny Mordaunt third with 105 votes. The last mentioned on the basis of the rules framed was eliminated, with only the first two proceeding to examination by party members.

Thus, it has boiled down in the eyes of analysts to be a battle between a continuity candidate in Truss, who was opposed to Brexit, but now appears to be an ardent Brexiteer to the extent of wanting to renege on the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit Agreement signed with the European Union; whereas Sunak is being touted as what in British political parlance is described as ‘a one nation Tory’ or one with an inclusive outlook

Truss, too, studied at Oxford, where her association was with the Liberal Democrats, not the Conservatives. Now caretaker foreign secretary in ousted Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lame-duck government, she is expected to sustain her attack on former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak’s refusal to cut tax. The latter’s argument is, this would be irresponsible as unless the government debt accumulated because of lavish, unbudgeted spending during the Covid crisis is reduced, there will, in his view, be greater inflation.

Already, Britain is in the midst of one of its worst cost of living crises. Energy, food and motor vehicle fuel prices have broken all records, making a lower income person’s existence virtually unaffordable.

But the right-wing Conservative party prides itself for believing in a low tax regime. Consequently, Sunak’s logic flies in the face of their natural instincts. Truss’ promise to cut taxes would, according to Sunak, create £15 billion hole in the government’s finances. But a majority of Conservatives don’t seem to care. They fancy the populism of a lower tax burden.

Yet, it is not just on tax matters that Sunak has confronted fire. His judgement on personal and family matters has been questioned. He held on to a Green Card, which is issued by United States authorities granting a person permanent residence and a right to work in that country, even after returning to the UK.

More below the belt was an expose of his wife Akshata Murthy’s tax affairs. Murthy, an Indian and daughter of N R Narayana Murthy, one of the founders of the Bangalore-headquartered software giant INFOSYS, is a shareholder in this company. She derives annual dividends from this stake; and was paying income tax on these in India rather than in Britain, because of the advantage of a lower rate of taxation in this category in India compared to the UK. She, by British legislation, was entitled to do so, therefore broke no law; and Sunak had declared the circumstances to the Cabinet Office in Whitehall - which raised no objection - before becoming a government minister.

When specifically asked about this in the ITV debate, Sunak replied: ‘My wife is from another country. So she’s treated differently. She explained that in the spring and she resolved that issue.’ Murthy agreed to pay tax on her dividends in Britain.

Tax matters are meant to be top secret in Britain; not for the knowledge of anyone other than the individual concerned and Inland Revenue. With Johnson falling in public esteem since November 2021 and Sunak’s popularity correspondingly rising, it was suspected in a section of the British press that the disclosure about Murthy’s tax status could only have been triggered by ‘Downing Street’ – code for Johnson’s office. Murthy was said to be livid about the embarrassment caused and walked out of the Chancellor’s official residence to the Sunaks’ private home in Kensington.

The thrusts against Sunak also highlighted INFOSYS did business in Russia – a cardinal sin in Johnsonite Britain – since after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it's a pariah state in the West. In the TV exchange, Sunak, who had not so far spoken publicly on the issue, chose to go on the offensive.

‘There is commentary about my wife’s family as well,’ he said. ‘And so let me just address that head on because it’s worth doing; ‘cos I am incredibly proud of what my parents-in-law built. My father-in-law came from absolutely nothing, and just had a dream and a couple of hundred pounds that my mother-in-law’s savings provided him. And with that he went on to build one of the world’s largest, most respected, most successful companies. That, by the way, employs thousands of people here in the United Kingdom,’ he said.

He concluded: ‘Actually it’s a story that I am very proud of. As prime minister I want to ensure that we can create more stories like theirs here at home.’

But will the Conservative party make him prime minister? Whether it does or doesn’t – and for the moment the prospects are not bright – one thing is certain. Sunak is unlikely to be defensive about his Indian in-laws. He will carry the fight to his opponent.

Published: 21 Jul 2022, 9:09 PM