Christ taught that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to Heaven. Fitzgerald had Gatsby listen to a ditty about the rich getting richer and the poor getting children. And ABBA sang that it must be funny in a rich man’s world. To those, we can add a new aphorism, based on Rishi Sunak’s recent travails: being rich in British politics is a right pain in the posterior.
Of course, the Chancellor’s mess is one largely of his own making. Akshata Murthy’s non-dom status is perfectly legal. But it is not the best look to have your wife minimising the amount of tax she pays just as you hike National Insurance, let the tax take reach its highest level since the 1950s, and steward the economy through a cost-of-living crisis.
The consensus now emerging amongst commentators is that Sunak was fundamentally naïve if he thought he could get away without his wife’s tax affairs becoming a problem. The swiftness of his rise and his commanding public presence have made it easy to forget he has only been a Minister since 2018, an MP since 2015, and involved in national politics since 2014.
Nevertheless, although Murthy paying up might have been the inevitable tonic for her husband’s political ailments, the medicine leaves a sour taste in my mouth. As I pointed out on GB News last week, the opprobrium heaped on the Sunaks is typical of one of the worst features of the British character – the success-loathing mentality of “it’s alright for some”.
As politically potent as Labour’s attacks on “one rule for them and one rule for you” might be, we should fear the implications of the super-rich being permanently turned off entering Parliament. Seeing the Chancellor’s hounding would make anyone similarly wealthy run a mile from SW1. This would be a tragedy for our politics.
The very rich tend to have a few useful qualities. They tend to be well above average in their powers of mathematical, scientific or logical reasoning. They have a great deal of energy, confidence, and sound risk-taking instincts. And they have had the good fortune – by luck or birth – to be able to exploit these talents. That isn’t my assessment. It’s the Prime Minister’s.
All of these are assets on the green benches. You may or may not think that this Cabinet is one of the weakest on record, or that the general quality of our politicians has declined. I always remember that the former Oxford dons, bon viveurs, and self-styled intellectuals of Wilson and Callaghan’s Cabinets comprised the shabbiest and most disastrous Government in modern memory.
But the canniness of those who have made a buck is of a different quality to those of academics or authors. It is the ability to spot trends, read data, take punts, and discern the good investment from the bad. The Chancellor demonstrated this perfectly when he began worrying about rising inflation and surging debt repayment costs long before most commentators, economists, and politicians.
Yet Sunak’s fellow members of the California pad-owning and £200 coffee-cup drinking class will be appalled by the intrusion and condemnation that their wealth attracts if they swap Santa Monica for SW1. They will want no part in it. They cannot therefore be blamed for avoiding political life and the reputational and financial hit it brings.
The salary for MPs of £84, 144 a year is a lot of money for most. But for Sunak’s fellow first-class Oxford and Stanford grads, they could make far more in the private sector. And we wonder why we therefore end up with a representative chamber stuffed with ex-SPADs, lecturers, lawyers, trade union officials, local councillors, and SME owners – as worthy as those professions may be.
Making your pile, enjoying your dream lifestyle, and then devoting yourself to public service should be a worthwhile ambition. An increasing number of former leading politicians take the opposite route, climbing the greasy pole before quitting to seek their fortune in the advisory-lobbying-quango nexus. The Prime Minister, Chancellor, and Deputy PM of a decade ago are all cases in point.
This robs the House of Commons of talent and experience that it desperately needs. In 1937, the Prime Minister’s salary was equivalent to £660,000 today. It is now £157,000. To retain this country’s highly-educated and accomplished Anywheres, we should be bringing the pay of MPs and ministers up towards the former figure. Or stop prying into their personal finances. Unlikely, I’d say.
Yes, encouraging the wealthy into politics might give you a few Donald Trumps. But a system equipped only for politicos will give you a lot of Joe Bidens. I’d much rather have Rishi Sunak – polite, compos mentis, and with the best economic brain since Nigel Lawson. With apologies to the Messiah, it should not be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go into Parliament.