Will Lloyd is a Commissioning Editor and writer for the New Statesman.
“So, one of these things not many people know about me”, Rishi Sunak said to the school boys, “is that I collect Coca-Cola things.”
The boys pretended to look interested. Looking interested in that admission looked like hard work. Oblivious, the then Chancellor meandered on:
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a coke addict, a total coke addict.”
At last he had the boys’ full attention. They blushed all puce, and giggled. Sunak had summoned an unlikely image into their heads: himself, at around 4am, surrounded by the smoking detritus of a big night out, unsteadily girding himself for another fat line of marching powder.
This was March 2021; he had only been Chancellor for a couple of months. Yet already the astronaut dullness of Sunak’s personality was widespread public knowledge. Widespread enough to send those two boys into a tailspin when he chatted coke. Here is a man who’s default setting is a steadiness so pure and so relentless that he makes Theresa May seem like the Empress Theodora.
Becoming Prime Minister has not made Rishi Sunak any more interesting.
Watching his big stall-setting speech (twice) last week I found myself (twice) becoming fascinated with the cuticle on my left index finger. I had to read the speech to remember what he said in it. Five pledges? And, God help us all, something about Maths?
Newspaper write-ups compared his delivery to Chat-GPT and a Girl Guide. A startlingly revealing intervention came from one big-name columnist on Twitter:
“One thing I realised that watching Sunak taking questions at his event yesterday is how incredibly posh he is. Not an argument against him, but interesting.”
But is it interesting? Nope. Even the public knows Rishi Sunak is “rich”. Rather than being interesting, it is simply more evidence that the Prime Minister is not interesting at all.
Sunak barely even seems interested in himself. The details of his biography, and the great contemporary theme of personal identity, do not appear to trouble him. Ask the Prime Minister who he is and he’ll start talking about his parents’ pharmacy and Southampton FC.
The remarkable fact of a first Hindu Prime Minister, who took office during Diwali, seventy-five years after the partition of India, barely elicited comment. William Dalrymple did not emerge to tell us what it all meant. Not a peep out of David Olusoga. Simon Schama was silent.
Perhaps the nation’s sense of history is totally imprisoned in tiresome debates about statues. Or, more likely, Sunak’s sheer blandness prevents anybody attempting to write something ambitious about him.
His character is a flat, opaque surface. There is no evidence of anything behind it. As Norman Mailer said of Gore Vidal, Sunak “lacks the wound”.
Writers, whether they are columnists or biographers or historians, have a weakness for wounds. They are something to poke around in. Grips on the climbing wall. And they adore “rubber ducky” explanations of character: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.”
Rubber ducks are absent from the Sunak story. I suspect they always will be.
With Sunak what you see – a robot – really is what you get. He is too busy crunching numbers to crack jokes, too buried in spreadsheets to concoct dazzling speeches. He draws so little attention to himself.
Perversely, this may turn out to be a formidable political advantage. The last thing the Conservatives need is a leader who makes voters think too much about their party, the governments they have formed in the last twelve years, or the resulting state of the nation.
Polls predict another 1997 for the Conservative Party. And yet, watching Keir Starmer’s speech the day after Sunak’s – the only man in the country who may be more boring than the Prime Minister – another scenario emerges.
A general election is still two years away. Two party leaders, both alike in dullness, send us all to sleep. The contest itself? In January 2025 Britain watches niceness take on niceness, competence duel competence, and managerialism headbutt managerialism.
In such circumstances, if they can even be bothered to go to the polling station, does the median voter “take a chance” with the economy, the Union, and the Labour Party?
Tony Blair remains the only Labour leader born in the last century to have won an election. Simply being himself is Sunak’s best chance of keeping it that way.