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Rishi Sunak: Instagram chancellor and prime minister in waiting

The Guardian logo The Guardian 27/02/2021 Rupert Neate
a man wearing a suit and tie: Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Boris Johnson isn’t the most popular Conservative. That accolade goes to Rishi Sunak, who is the bookies’ favourite to become the next prime minister.

Sunak – a virtual unknown outside the Westminster bubble until he was appointed chancellor just over a year ago – has built his popularity through social media, catchy soundbites and always looking on-point whether he is wearing a tailored suit or a WFH grey hoodie. Next week he will deliver potentially the most important budget since the second world war.

Most politicians probably think a meme is a misspelt memo. Not Sunak. The 40-year-old’s use of social media has become a trademark – though it does not always go according to plan.

His use of the How it started … How it’s going meme to celebrated his first anniversary as chancellor is a case in point.

“Growing up I never thought I would be in this job (mainly because I wanted to be a Jedi),” he wrote on Twitter and Instagram. “It’s been incredibly tough but thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way.”

Using a #NotRagsToRiches hashtag, opponents pointed out Sunak had missed out a few key biographical details.

Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, tweeted:

Educated at Winchester College and then Oxford, Sunak has admitted he was “very lucky to have been at these places. It does put me in an elite in society.”

But it is not something he tends to dwell on either. Recently, he has also been promoting YouTube videos of himself helping teach primary school kids maths on Zoom from this office in No 11 with “MR SUNAK” written on a whiteboard behind him.

After he had finished explaining fractions to year 6 at St Paul’s primary school in Swanley, Kent, last week he took some questions from the pupils. When one asked him what his favourite subject was at school he answered that maths, English literature and economics were his three favourite subjects. He neglected to point out that his experiences of school were probably rather different to theirs.

Sunak owes a lot to his past. It was at Winchester that he struck up a firm friendship with James Forsyth, now the political editor of the Spectator. In 2011, he was bestman at Forsyth wedding to Allegra Stratton, a former Guardian, Newsnight and ITV News journalist, who went on to become Sunak’s director of strategic communications and is now the prime ministers press secretary. The Sunaks and the Forsyth-Strattons are godparents to each other’s children.

a man wearing a suit and tie: The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is to deliver on Wednesday what is potentially the most important budget since the second world war © Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is to deliver on Wednesday what is potentially the most important budget since the second world war

It was Stratton who introduced Sunak to the man credited with building “brand Rishi” – Cass Horowitz a young social media guru.

Horowitz, a son of the hugely successful Alex Rider series author Anthony Horowitz, is now Sunak’s special adviser.

a man holding a sign: Rishi Sunak does his bit for restaurants and possibly, according to a Warwick University study, the acceleration of the pandemic into its second wave. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/PA © Provided by The Guardian Rishi Sunak does his bit for restaurants and possibly, according to a Warwick University study, the acceleration of the pandemic into its second wave. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/PA

It was Horowitz who helped the chancellor dream up eat out to help out, the scheme that briefly helped struggling restaurants last summer but cost taxpayers £500m and caused, according to a University of Warwick study, a significant rise in coronavirus infections. Horowitz is also said to behind his other catchy acronym policies: sector-based work academies (Swap) and the job entry targeted support scheme (Jets).

Horowitz sought to widen Sunak’s appeal by offering the chancellor for interview to media outlets as varied as Glamour magazine and LadBible – in which he refused to be drawn on whether or not he liked being referred to as “Dishi Rishi”.

Time Magazine has included Sunak in its list of the top 100 “young emerging leaders”, alongside the singer Dua Lipa and the actor Florence Pugh.

Sunak, who married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of the Indian billionaire co-founder of Infosys NR Narayana Murthy, in 2009, is also friendly with a host of celebrities in the UK and India. And now he is starting to call on them to appear in his own YouTube series called In Conversation.

In the first episode, which was released last week, Sunak heaped praise on the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who in return describes the support the chancellor provided for the shutdown hospitality industry as “the best in the world”.

The critics were not so kind. Jay Rayner, the Observer restaurant critic and host of BBC Radio 4’s the Kitchen Cabinet, said the video was “that killer combination of tone deaf and chronically self-important”.

Lisa Markwell, the food editor of the Sunday Times, said: “Neither a leader nor an expert. Could the chancellor not have found someone other than a merciless self-publicist in an industry that employs millions?”

Nevertheless, the self-marketing has given Sunak 450,000 followers on Twitter, and 145,000 onInstagram, a popularity that is not universally shared by fellow Conservatives.

Johnny Mercer, the MP for Plymouth Moor View, was asked in a Tory WhatsApp group: “Is it possible to have these graphics with a Conservative party logo on, instead of Rishi’s signature?”. The Tories’ “tree” logo was later added to some of the posts.

The brand and marketing expert Mark Borkowski said Sunak had Johnson and the rest of the cabinet worried.

“It is his sharp image that is so striking against dishevelled Boris that really cuts through,” Borkowski said. “Sunak is always beautifully turned out, he has that George Clooney glamour. His social media is supremely successful, you could call him the nation’s first Instagram chancellor.”

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