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    Critics: Sunak too rich to rule

    Jill Lawless

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

    But the United Kingdom’s(UK) first prime minister of colour 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 GBP730 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 on 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 per cent, and the cost of everyday items has gone up even more – pasta by 60 per cent, tea by 46 per cent, and bread by 38 per cent in the past year, according to government figures.

    A bag of frozen fries went up from GBP0.99 (USD1.15) to GBP1.37 (USD1.61); a two-quart jug of milk rose from GBP1.17 (USD1.35) to GBP1.52 (USD1.76) in the year to September.

    “I don’t think you can understand what normal people go through if your wealth is like GBP730 million, it’s just crazy,” said a mental health worker in London, Megan Hooper. “You can’t understand what people who live on GBP20 grand a year go through.”

    Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons in London. PHOTOS: AP
    Rishi Sunak holds his first Cabinet meeting in Downing Street

    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 November 17.

    “I just don’t think that there is any hope that he’s going to do anything to help poorer people,” she said.

    As prime minister, Sunak earns GBP164,000 (USD190,000) a year, five times the average full-time UK 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-per-cent stake in the firm is worth GBP690 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 USD600, and he was once photographed at work with a USD200 “smart” coffee mug on his desk.

    Head of the UCL Policy Lab at University College London, Marc Stears 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 UK 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 said 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 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 the 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 UK tax on her overseas income, including GBP11.5 million 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 criticised for holding on to his American green card, which signifies an intent to settle in the United States (US) 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 channelled funding from “deprived urban areas” into wealthy districts like theirs.

    But a former Labour speechwriter, Stears 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 has 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 for various investment companies and all sorts of things. So his money is his own.”

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