Rishi Sunak’s Slick Branding Irks U.K. Tories Just When He Needs Them

Slick, efficient, preppy, like any successful Stanford MBA, the U.K.’s finance minister Rishi Sunak has been the cabinet’s star performer during the pandemic and is touted as a modern prime minister in-waiting.

But some Conservative politicians wonder whether Sunak is overdoing his personal branding and may lack the human touch he needs to take him one step further to the top job.

In the run-up to his annual keynote budget, the chancellor of the exchequer has been polishing his public image in a way that will annoy some of his more pompous Tory colleagues. He’ll want as much support from his own side as he can get in the months ahead as he confronts the need to raise tax and cut spending to plug a huge budget deficit.

In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s budget, Sunak held countless calls with Conservative members of Parliament, hosting them in groups on Zoom according to their region and their political ideology so he could tailor his messages to suit the audience.

The result has been largely positive, which will do his leadership chances no harm in the longer term. Hardly anyone has a bad word to say about Sunak and multiple Tories refer to him as a nice guy and a clever politician.

During meetings with colleagues, Sunak often describes how he helped his mother with her pharmacy accounts at the kitchen table as a boy, deliberately conjuring an image of a hard-working family. And he isn’t afraid to flaunt the trappings of success, with a Peloton-honed physique, high-end suits and a 180-pound ($250) smart mug that keeps coffee at a precise temperature -- a gift from his multi-millionaire wife. That’s not to mention the hoodies he and his team have been seen -- and photographed -- wearing.

The admiration for Sunak isn’t universal. By focusing on work as the route out of poverty, Sunak risks alienating society’s neediest, his internal party critics say. They point to the government’s multiple U-turns on child hunger during the pandemic -- first refusing to pay for school meals for the poorest during holidays and then relenting -- as evidence of how the chancellor can be unresponsive to the needs of society’s most disadvantaged.

Sunak’s detractors, of whom there are currently very few, compare him unfavorably to Johnson, pointing to the premier’s double stint as London mayor and delivery of a barnstorming majority in Parliament as evidence of what’s needed to connect with the electorate.

The irritation from colleagues tends to focus on Sunak’s self-promotion -- such as a six-minute Twitter video announcing his intention to focus on jobs in the budget and a regular branded newsletter.

Some Tories are annoyed by the way in which he’s attached his personal branding to hundreds of billions of pounds of state help for businesses and individuals during the pandemic. That extends to social-media messages that include his own signature on government announcements.

Others are irked that he’s pushed back a traditional post-budget private meeting with rank-and-file Tory MPs so he can host a news conference first. But perhaps sensing he’s likely to be their next leader, none of Sunak’s detractors wanted to criticize him on the record.

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