Rishi Sunak’s grandmother sold all her wedding jewellery for a one-way ticket to the land of Oxford and Shakespeare

  • 8 November, 2020
  • Politics
  • Publications

Serialisation of Going For Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak, published in The Mail On Sunday on 08 November 2020.

If there is such a thing as a perfect childhood, all the evidence suggests that Rishi Sunak was lucky enough to have had one.

Loving parents and siblings, a stable home environment, a big house with a garden in the sort of leafy English neighbourhood where children can play in the street, and an education at one of the country’s leading public schools.

They sound like the best possible ingredients for a successful start in life.

And yet none of it would have been possible without the extraordinary courage and vision of Sunak’s maternal grandmother Sraksha, a remarkable woman who grew up in rural Africa and who gambled everything she held dear to give her children a better life.

Born to Hindu Punjabi parents in a remote hut in the heart of Tanzania’s lion country, the Chancellor’s grandmother learned Swahili as a child and considered Africa her home, although her family retained close ties with the India they had left behind.

At the age of 16, she entered an arranged marriage with Rishi’s grandfather, Raghubir Berry, a railway engineer from the Punjab, then working in Tanzania.

In a move highly unusual at the time, this smart, confident young woman persuaded her groom to build a new life in Africa – a reversal of the usual wedding custom of ‘bidaai’ whereby the bride leaves her childhood home to join her husband.

Raghubir found a job as a tax official in his new country and the couple had three children: Rishi’s mother, Usha, and her two younger brothers.

By the 1960s, the family had set its heart on a move to Britain, inspired by Sraksha, who was beguiled by the idea of the land of Oxford and Shakespeare. While immigration rules made the move possible, finances were more of a problem.

Undaunted, Rishi’s grandmother sold all of her wedding jewellery to buy a one-way ticket to Britain, leaving her husband and three children behind in Tanzania in the hope – by no means certainty – that they would one day be able to join her. It was an immense risk to take.

Arriving in the UK in 1966 with no family or friends to greet her, Sraksha made her way to Leicester and rented a room as a paying guest of a distant acquaintance.

Making the most of her head for numbers, she found a job as a book-keeper with an estate agent.

She saved every penny and a year later was finally able to pay for her husband and children, including Usha, then 15, to join her in Britain and begin the family life she had so long dreamed of.

Her vision was the start of a remarkable success story that, with the meteoric rise of her grandson Rishi, is still unfolding.

Usha went on to study pharmacology at Aston University. Shortly afterwards, she was introduced by mutual friends to Yashvir Sunak, a medical student who had recently graduated from Liverpool University and whose upper-middle-class Punjabi family had moved to Britain from Nairobi during his young adulthood.

Usha and Yashvir were married in Leicester in 1977 before relocating to Southampton, where their first child, Rishi, was born on May 12, 1980. Another son and daughter followed.

Neighbours in the cul-de-sac of six-bedroom houses on the outskirts of the city remember the small boy with jet-black hair, a ready smile and lovely manners who used to wheel around on a bike or kick a ball about with the other children.

‘The whole Sunak family, including the children, were very friendly, very personable,’ remembers Janet Parnell, who lived next door. ‘Rishi was chattier than his brother, always very polite and friendly.’

Everyone on the street seems to have liked Yashvir, by then working as a family doctor, and Usha, who had been a manager at a local pharmacy before giving birth to Rishi. ‘They often had social dos with other people in the street,’ recalls Parnell.

On special occasions, the family had dinner at Yashvir and Usha’s favourite restaurant, owned by a popular local businessman, Kuti Miah, who had become a close friend. He had moved to the UK from Bangladesh in 1975 and has known the Chancellor since he was just a few weeks old.

He recalls: ‘I always say I saw lights on Rishi from day one. He’s so charismatic, like his dad. And like his dad, he is a very kind guy.’

Olly Case, a former pupil at the Sunak children’s primary school who now teaches there, remembers that the future Chancellor was quickly identified as a high achiever.

‘He was someone who was talked about. The teachers would say, ‘He’s going to be Prime Minister,’ ‘ he recalls.

In 1993, the talented and hard-working Rishi won a place at one of Britain’s premier public schools, Winchester College, where it appears that the naughtiest thing he ever did was to smuggle in a portable TV so he didn’t miss any key games of the Euro 96 football tournament.

An avid football and cricket fan, he is a passionate supporter of Southampton FC, whose prolific goal-scorer Matt Le Tissier was his childhood hero.

But his family’s culture remained of huge importance, with their life successfully incorporating both British and Indian traditions.

Rishi has described how he was as often to be found at the city’s Hindu temple at weekends as he was at a Saints game. ‘You do everything, you do both – it’s part of my identity,’ he has said.

During school holidays, Rishi supported his mother at her new pharmacy business, which she had set up after her children had grown more independent. He helped with the accounts and book-keeping, a role that fostered a growing political awareness.

Seeing how Government fiscal policy affected company profits, he began taking an interest in fluctuations in National Insurance and VAT rates and paying attention to what political parties were saying about tax and spending.

He was also becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of the role his parents played in the community. Speaking about his decision to go into politics many years later, he explained: ‘It was my parents who motivated me, but not in a political way.

‘My dad was a GP, my mum a pharmacist, and I grew up working in their surgery; in the pharmacy; delivering medicines to people who couldn’t pick them up.

‘People would always stop and talk to me about my mum and dad, saying, ‘Oh, you’re Mrs Sunak’s son, Dr Sunak’s son.’ And then they’d have some story about how my parents had helped them, or their parents, or children, and I thought that was amazing.

‘They had done the same job in the same place for 30 years, and it was clear that they as individuals were able to have an amazing impact on the community around us, and that I found pretty inspiring. And that was my motivation for becoming an MP.’

It was an exciting time to become interested in politics, as the Conservative administration of the time entered its death throes. After 18 long years, the party was exhausted and divided, while Labour was surging under new leader Tony Blair.

Although by no means an era when it was fashionable for young people to be Tories, for Rishi they were the party with which he identified most.

For all of its troubles, he felt Conservatism still represented the aspirational values he espoused: hard work, the importance of education and the primacy of the individual over the state.

He has said he felt the Conservative Party was ‘kind of on the side’ of people like his parents, who had poured everything into creating a better life for themselves and their children.

In the meantime, he was preparing to take up a place at Oxford University, and, like most students, was in need of cash.

Thanks to his parents’ old friend Kuti Miah, he worked at the restaurant where they were regulars over at least two summers in 1998 and 1999. The restaurateur prefers not to use the word ‘waiter’. Instead, he says the future Chancellor was more like an ‘entertainer’ whose job was to ensure diners had a great experience.

‘He was very warm, explaining, laughing, always had a smile on his face,’ Miah recalls. ‘He would talk to every table. He was charming with every single person.’

Miah says Sunak was conscientious and never cut corners. ‘Everything he does, he does it passionately. He tried his best, his level best.’

Shortly after the Conservative Party conference of autumn 2014, Rishi Sunak was on a train trundling north on what he felt was likely to be a wasted journey.

Having recently returned from several years working as an investment banker in the US, and determined to become a Tory MP, he had little time to make his ambitions happen before the General Election the following year.

William Hague had announced he would not seek re-election after clocking up 26 years as MP for the rural constituency of Richmond, North Yorkshire.

His decision had opened up one of the country’s safest Tory seats. Sunak’s mission was to put in a sufficiently impressive performance to make it to the final shortlist.

Fellow candidate Stephen Parkinson, now Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, recalls: ‘It was the first time I’d ever met Rishi. It was very clear how suave and smart and presentable he was. He didn’t push himself forward, but that’s a very wise thing. If you get too loud and too pushy, that can definitely count against you.’

Both men travelled back to London on the same train. Parkinson says: ‘By the time we got to King’s Cross, I’d have voted for him myself.’

Meanwhile, the selection panel was in no doubt who they wanted as their candidate. One of those who witnessed Sunak’s performance said he simply ‘blew them away’.

For the next eight months, Sunak could have done very little in Richmond and he would still have found himself heading to Westminster with a thumping majority. That was not in his nature, however. He was eager to get to know his new patch.

As he dutifully made his way round the constituency, Sunak constantly talked about the ‘big boots’ he had to fill.

He handled this slight burden by playing the apprentice, constantly deferring to William Hague.

He managed to pull this off without sounding insincere, impressing voters with his obvious eagerness to learn.

On a practical note, the huge life change he was making from City hedge fund manager to rural politician required a new wardrobe. Here he had less success fitting in.

In an early presentational error, he purchased a pair of blue wellington boots, the choice of colour immediately marking him out as a ‘townie’ in the farming community, where the standard colour is green.

Now in the constituency full-time, Sunak needed a base. Most parliamentary candidates rent a modest flat or cottage, but it came to his attention that there was a fabulous manor house on the market. The Grade II listed building was set in many acres of parkland and had a beautiful lake.

Sunak and his wife Akshata were used to multi-million-pound price tags for their swanky apartments in London and Los Angeles. Reflecting the very different property market in Yorkshire, this stately home was a comparative snip at £1.5 million. Sunak knew he could not afford to be seen to be measuring up for curtains before he had even been elected. So he struck a deal with the owner to rent the place with a view to buying it as and when he became MP.

The geography of this huge rural seat meant Sunak clocked up hundreds of miles a week in a test of his physical stamina. The demographic was a more delicate problem.

When he’d applied for the seat, he was well aware that it was one of the whitest constituencies in the country. He fully expected to come up against some form of racism.

Angus Thompson, chairman of Richmond Conservative Association, says that while Sunak was never subjected to any overt abuse, he had to overcome latent prejudice among some older voters.

‘At times, I felt as though there were people who played the racist card,’ says Thompson. ‘It was older people in their 70s or so, who had just thought of ethnic minorities as people who lived in Bradford. They didn’t see him as fitting in in rural Yorkshire.’

Thompson adds: ‘He dealt with that brilliantly. If people said, ‘We remember William Hague. We like William,’ he would say, ‘I’m the next William Hague – I’ve just got a better tan!’ He dealt with it very well.’

In May 2015, his hard work paid off. Sunak secured more than 51 per cent of the vote. After months in rural Yorkshire, he was heading back to the bright lights of the capital – and the corridors of power.

Will the prophesy of Sunak’s former teachers come true? Will he become Britain’s first ethnic minority Prime Minister?

After the 2019 Election, the Government’s position looked as solid as that of any for more than a decade. But with MPs less biddable than ever, an 80-seat majority is not what it used to be. Even if not imminently, the premiership will eventually be up for grabs.

As things stand, Sunak would be foremost among the contenders. Apart from his other qualifications, his background could work strongly in his favour.

‘It’s undeniably the case that aside from everything else, the Conservative Party’s own members would take great glee in electing the first ethnic minority Prime Minister before Labour,’ says one who knows the party well.

However, a senior Tory cautions that Sunak is ‘in fashion, which is a curse. What goes in fashion can come out of it. Tony Blair was the future once, and so was David Cameron.’

Meanwhile, political commentator Philip Collins has suggested that having ‘stood out as a transparently decent man who is fully in command of his brief’ and, unlike some of his colleagues, capable of ‘getting through an interview without saying something silly’, Sunak had inescapably set himself up as a rival to his boss.

One senior Tory said that however pleased he might be by the Chancellor’s performance and popularity, at the back of his mind ‘Boris is thinking, ‘I made him. He owes me. He had better not step out of line.’ ‘

Sunak himself naturally denies any prime ministerial ambition.

‘Oh gosh, I don’t have that desire,’ he told Times Radio when asked if the stresses of recent months had dampened his wish for the top job.

Privately, allies say he is indeed happy where he is.

‘He loves being Chancellor,’ says one. ‘He’s very good at being Chancellor. This is his Mastermind subject.’

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