A debilitating week for Treasury-based luxury casualwear influencer Rishi Sunak. He used to seem invincible; now he’s the pocket Samson who’s just taken a massive haircut courtesy of his wife. I know Rishi wants to be prime minister and stuff, but it’s increasingly difficult to imagine how the mega-rich chancellor would persuade ordinary British people to do difficult things. Mate – you can’t even persuade your own wife to pay you tax.
But before I get accused of being a sexist by … hang on, let me get my lorgnette … James Cleverlywe’d better have a recap of developing events, which now include a US green card controversy. Initially believed to be watching his political oxidisation on Pacific time, the chancellor is in fact on these shores. I hear Lynton Crosby has banned Easter getaways, meaning Sunak will have to unwind in one of his houses in this country, as opposed to the high-end Santa Monica apartment he owns in a complex that includes a pet spa.
Anyway, he has granted a hotly defensive exclusive interview to the Sun, which runs under the apoplectic banner LAY OFF MY MISSUS. And I think you’ll agree that headline truly captures the way Rishi Sunak speaks. This, quite simply, is a guy who is as at-home screaming a warning out of a van window as he is indulging in a desultory browse of Mr Porter’s fine knits, his cursor hovering briefly over a £495 smoke-blue James Perse cashmere hoodie before the window is closed in listless pique. There are some injustices even a knitwear purchase can’t alleviate. Even so, I think the headline could have been punchier. I’d have gone with PAY TAX? IN THIS ECONOMY?!
As for the meat of the interview, I hugely enjoyed the implication that the £30,000 annual flat fee required for Akshata Murty to retain her non-dom status is the typical foreign national experience in this country. As Rishi explains of Murty’s completely legal arrangements: “That is how the system works for people like her who are international who have moved here.” (Great to hear that at least one part of any of the UK system works. “The system works” is really not a phrase you’re hearing a lot right now.) Very enjoyable, too, to read the furious commentary about Murty on MailOnline and in the Daily Mail, whose proprietor Lord Rothermere inherited his own non-dom status from his father. Again: the system works.
And listen, what’s not to love about this latest episode of Sunak’s fish-out-of-water comedy? Recent outings have seen the rarefied protagonist’s hilarious interactions with the ordinary world. The one where he goes to the petrol station and fills up someone else’s car, then tries to scan his card on the barcode reader. The one where he fails to do anything meaningful in his mini-budget to alleviate the cost of living crisis for the poorest households, then promptly gives an interview in which he trills: “We all have different breads in my house.” The one where he scans the popular press and comes up with the perfect person to self-pityingly compare himself to in a manner that in no way caused his spads to kick a hole in the wall. As Sunak explained: “Both Will Smith and me, having our wives attacked …” Come on! It’s a funny show!
Moving on to the villain trying to sabotage him, their precise identity remains a mystery. Where are all the mean stories about Sunak coming from? Not quite sure we need to activate Nancy Drew on this puzzle – Sunak’s naked manoeuvring, coupled with his vanishing act every time an unfavourable partygate story broke for Boris Johnson, suggests at least the dim possibility that his aggressor may be known to him. My own fan theory, however, is that this is a show where Sunak plays both protagonist and antagonist. Or to put it another way, he is his own worst enemy.
The current stories are not a “smear”, as he claims, but the totally predictable consequence of his family’s financial arrangements, which he should have seen coming a mile off. It may be perfectly legal, but it is obviously – obviously! – a giant piss-take if the chancellor’s own wife has non-dom status.
Apologies for returning to an achingly familiar furrow for this column over the years, but it really doesn’t have to be this way. The Hong Kong tax code, often cited as the most efficient and avoidance-proof in the world, is around 350 pages. The ever-expanding UK tax code is the world’s longest, currently running to more than 22,000 pages, having increased vastly in size under both Labour and Conservative governments. Unsurprisingly, it amounts to a charter for myriad types of avoidance. Tell you who should do something about this, just like all his recent predecessors should have but didn’t: Rishi Sunak.
Instead, he prefers to spend his days saying no to pleas to alleviate hardship, which seems to exist in a universe beyond his comprehension. Hard to pick a low point, but I’ll go with the time he turned down the request from the hugely respected educational recovery tsar Kevan Collins for £15bn in pandemic catch-up funding for children. Sunak would only fork out £1.4bn, which isn’t even twice what he spent buying people free burgers with “eat out to help out”. Collins resigned in despair. It emerged that an internal presentation had shown Sunak and others in Downing Street how failure to invest £15bn now in this failed generation of children would result in the state paying upwards of £160bn down the line in welfare and criminal justice. And still Sunak said no, presumably on the basis that that would all be someone else’s problem in the future. As David Cameron reportedly said to his aides before his post-referendum resignation: “Why should I do all the hard shit?”
And why should Rishi Sunak do it either? Why shouldn’t his wife tick the box and keep paying her 30 grand a year to stay out of things? Why shouldn’t statements of fact be denounced as smears? All sorts of things are optional if ordinary people would only realise it. Let them eat different breads.