27 October 2020

Rishi Rich – are attacks on the Chancellor racist, or just inept?

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Hold the front page. It turns out the Chancellor of the Exchequer is, in fact, rather well off.

A new ‘attack ad’ from campaign group One Rule For Them makes the devastating observation that Rishi Sunak has lots of money and worked as a banker and hedge fund manager before becoming an MP. It’s comically inept stuff, with stock images of plush houses, including a ‘Kensington mansion’ which looks like it’s in Wiltshire, and Rishi and his wife clinking mocked-up champagne glasses, despite the fact he doesn’t drink.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of attack on the Chancellor. The best previous examples of what the ad calls his “lavish celebrity lifestyle” was his working out on a Peloton bike and owning a £180 ‘smart mug’ that keeps your hot beverage a pleasingly consistent temperature – a revelation that prompted Brits to cry as one: “Where can I get one?”. Labour and the Lib Dems are also trying to focus on Sunak’s finances, urging him to reveal details of a blind trust in which some of his personal investments are held.

Going after Conservatives over their wealth or background is well-trodden turf, of course. The canonical example came in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election back in 2008, when Labour campaigners mocked up Conservative candidate Edward Timpson in a top hat and branded him a ‘Tory toff’. The result? A thumping victory for the blue team on a 17.6% swing. Ed Miliband’s Labour tried the same thing on David Cameron and George Osborne, forever accusing them of being ‘out of touch’ – same tactic, same outcome. Then there were the feeble attempts from John McDonnell to suggest that Sajid Javid’s previous career in the City made him unfit to be Chancellor.

Given this kind of track record, why do the Conservatives’ opponents persist with this kind of thinly veiled class warfare?

One suggestion, voiced by several senior Tories, is that it’s down to racism. Javid himself suggested as much on Twitter yesterday, as did Foreign Office minister James Cleverly. It’s certainly true, as I’ve written before, that there is a disturbing tendency among some leftwingers to act as if anyone from an ethnic minority who supports the Conservatives is some kind of traitor to their own background. Just look at the many attacks on Priti Patel, including this ghastly cartoon by the Guardian’s Steve Bell, or Labour MP Clive Lewis telling BME Tory ministers they had “sold their souls” by joining the Cabinet.

In Javid’s case we had the absurd spectacle of the party of the workers attacking the son of a first-generation immigrant bus driver for working his way to the top of a famously demanding industry. The pinnacle of this form of leftwing entitlement came when Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that “only Labour can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people”.

But while there may be an element of that here, in Sunak’s case I suspect the rationale is much simpler: he is easily the most popular contemporary Tory politician and his opponents think these kind of personal attacks will bring him down a peg.

They are barking up the wrong tree for several reasons.

First, on the narrow ‘City Banker’ attack, going after a Chancellor for having done well in the private sector is not exactly a stinging charge. Beyond an indifferent shrug of the shoulders, most voters’ reaction would probably be: “Well, at least he’s good with money”. Some might also welcome the fact that he’s traded in a glittering finance career for a much less lucrative one in public service. The idea he or any of his ministerial colleagues are living a ‘celebrity lifestyle’ is especially ridiculous – Westminster may have its perks, but Beverly Hills it ain’t.

There’s a broader point here about voters though. Sure, a certain section of the public will lap up attacks on Tory toffs, but they were probably already in the Labour, or perhaps Green/Lib Dem column. The fact people in former industrial towns voted in a government led by Boris Johnson suggests that a great many people are not bothered if the Prime Minister or his colleagues are posh, as long as they are likeable and their policies seem attractive. By the same token, one of the reasons Sunak is popular – notwithstanding his paying big chunks of people’s salaries for much of this year – is that he has the crucial political quality of ‘speaking human’, seeming empathetic and compassionate at a time when people are struggling.

None of this means that personal attacks don’t work, of course. It’s just that they have a lot more bite if they focus on the politician’s character or competence, rather than their bank balance or background. If his rivals want to have a pop at Rishi Sunak, they should focus on how he’s spending all of our money, not what he chooses to do with his own.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.