Richer than the king: Is Rishi Sunak too wealthy to win?

LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has amassed a great personal fortune — but as the U.K. goes to the polls, that could come with a cost. 

Voters here have traditionally been somewhat suspicious of well-heeled politicians, leading some MPs to play down their wealth.

That’s not an easy ask for Sunak, who would have been independently extremely well off thanks to years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and with two hedge funds before he entered politics. His marriage to billionaire’s daughter Akshata Murty in 2009 took him to a whole new level. 

The Sunday Times reported last week that Sunak and his wife have gained an extra £122 million during the course of the 2023-24 financial year, putting their combined wealth at £651 million and making them richer than King Charles.

Their most valuable asset is Murty’s shareholding in Infosys, the India-based IT company co-founded by her father. Financial statements published this year show the prime minister personally made £2.2 million in 2022-23 — more than 60 times the average U.K. salary, and dwarfing his entitlement as PM of  £167,391.

That kind of wealth is difficult to downplay, and Sunak has hardly shied away from it with his £180 coffee mug, Prada shoes, and fondness for private air travel.

Having come to office unopposed in October 2022, polling day on July 4 marks the the first time Sunak will directly face the country’s verdict, and some believe his vast riches could yet prove part of his undoing.

Rishi’s riches

The prime minister certainly appeared uncomfortable when confronted on the BBC last year with a word cloud showing “rich,” “rich people” and “money” were among the most common responses among people who were asked what phrases they associated him with.

Luke Tryl, director of the polling firm which produced the word cloud, More in Common, said that Sunak’s wealth could count against him electorally in two ways.

First is the sentiment commonly expressed in focus groups, according to Tryl, that he’s “too rich to understand” and “just doesn’t get” the challenges facing households hit by the cost of living crisis which has dogged his time in office. 

Second, Sunak has suffered a series of gaffes — such as borrowing an average-priced car for a photo op and struggling to use a contactless card — which Tryl says stick in voters’ minds and reinforce a preconception of him “having more money than sense.”

Separate research by More in Common found 48 percent believe Sunak, the son of a GP and a pharmacist who sent him to private school, had an upper-class upbringing, compared with 17 percent who thought the same of Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Separate research by More in Common found 48 percent believe Sunak, the son of a GP and a pharmacist who sent him to private school, had an upper-class upbringing, compared with 17 percent who thought the same of Labour leader Keir Starmer. | Photo by Carl Court/Getty Image

Some Conservatives privately worry it will be difficult to move voters on from Sunak’s background in people’s minds.

One Tory MP granted anonymity to speak freely said: “He’s just too rich — regardless of his political judgment, people will just tend to think ‘he isn’t on our side’.” A former Conservative adviser added that it would be tricky for Sunak to overcome his “transactional, Goldman Sachs-type banker vibe.”

More money than sense?

This suspicion of the uber-rich stands in contrast to the United States, where studies show wealthy politicians are far more likely to be elected than those from more humble backgrounds.

And it’s not only Sunak’s finances which could go against him, but the way he manages the optics around his mega bucks bank balance.

When it was reported that his wife had non-domiciled tax status in 2022, while he was still chancellor, Downing Street reacted with a degree of anger that led some of Sunak’s colleagues to question his judgment.

It marked the first serious falter in his rapid ascent, and several Tory MPs believed at the time it could scupper his chances of getting the top job.


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Questions over his and his wife’s financial interests have not gone away since, with parliament’s standards watchdog finding that Sunak inadvertently breached parliament’s code of conduct by failing to properly declare Murty’s shareholding in the company Koru Kids, which stood to benefit from a government childcare policy.

Asked about his wealth last year, Sunak insisted he had no problem discussing it. “I actually quite welcome it, to be honest,” he told a Telegraph podcast

That claim may wear thin as it gets road-tested relentlessly on the campaign trail. 

Priced in

While some Tories are concerned about the class war aspects of the prime minister’s appeal to voters, senior Conservative strategists have struck a fairly relaxed attitude in the 18 months since he became PM, making no apologies for his routine use of private planes and helicopters.

As a Downing Street spokesperson put it during one of many grillings on the subject: “We always make decisions on the prime minister’s movements based on efficiency.”

His allies insist that his competence and ability to steward the economy matter more than his personal assets.

Robert Goodwill, a long-serving Tory MP who was an early backer of Sunak, said: “I really don’t think it is an issue,” and quipped that “at least no one can say he is only in it for the money.”

Andy Coulson, former comms director for Old Etonian David Cameron, told POLITICO’s Westminster Insider: “I don’t think people will ever hold it against you if you are rich or if you are posh … I think they want to know if you are any good at your job.” He did concede however that the PM’s team needed to be careful of appearances, adding: “You know, maybe don’t take the helicopter.”

Sunak’s riches have not featured heavily in Labour attack lines either — partly because the party’s strategists don’t think they have to, with voters raising the issue organically.

While individual Labour MPs might lambast the Tory leader for being “out of touch,” central party comms are focused far more closely on his record and that of his predecessors in government, pointing to mortgage costs and NHS waiting lists.

Aggie Chambre contributed reporting.