There’s an old joke among ministers that when they finally get their hands on the levers of power they find they are not attached to anything.
So it’s no surprise to see Rishi Sunak break into a broad grin when, with the pull of a simple lever, he is able to single-handedly move an eight-ton prefab housing unit across the floor of a factory in West Yorkshire.
Is this easier than getting things done in Westminster? ‘Absolutely!’ he replies with a knowing laugh, before checking himself and adding: ‘Actually, we have done some things.’
He’s not wrong. During his first 18 months in the job, he splurged more than £300billion in support packages to keep the economy afloat, and delivered countless economic statements, any one of which would have dwarfed a normal budget.
This week, the flagship furlough scheme closed, having saved millions of jobs, albeit at an eye-watering cost of £70billion
The Chancellor is in an upbeat mood, not least because those costly support schemes are finally coming to an end as the economic recovery picks up.
This week, the flagship furlough scheme closed, having saved millions of jobs, albeit at an eye-watering cost of £70billion.
Mr Sunak seems confident that the worst of the Covid crisis is over and that the lockdowns that sparked the need for furlough will not be needed again this winter.
‘I’m really proud of everyone who displayed a sense of resilience through the last year and a half,’ he says. ‘And seeing everyone back at work and things getting more back to normal. It feels to me like we’re stepping out of the coronavirus crisis, and can think about the future with a renewed sense of confidence and optimism.’
While he won’t quite rule out another lockdown, he notes that the Government has published ‘all’ of its contingency powers for the winter, and they don’t include one.
‘People can have confidence we have a set of measures in place that will help us get through. And on the economic side I am full of confidence and optimism,’ he says.
The Chancellor is speaking during a visit to a vast modular housing factory run by Legal and General in the former pit village of Sherburn in Elmet on the outskirts of Leeds.
It is an impressive site, where apartments complete with fixtures and fittings are turned round in 11 days, and a three-bedroom house takes just 17.
Happily chatting to apprentices, the 5ft 6in Chancellor cuts a slight, neat figure in his slim suit paired with the oversized safety boots required at the factory. The physical contrast with Boris Johnson is not the only one.
While he won’t quite rule out another lockdown, he notes that the Government has published ‘all’ of its contingency powers for the winter, and they don’t include one
Mr Sunak is also unfailingly polite. Asked about deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner’s rant against the ‘racist scum’ in the Tory Cabinet this week, he says that scum is ‘not a very nice word’ and appears baffled that anyone could describe one of the most diverse Cabinets in history as racist
Temperamentally, they are also chalk and cheese. Even the PM’s greatest defenders would not call him a stickler for accuracy – but the Chancellor is a details man.
Asked whether he helps out with the chores, Mr Sunak laughs and replies: ‘You should get my wife here. I have a very OCD approach to dishwashers, which she’ll tell you.
‘There’s a way to optimise how much stuff you can get in a dishwasher. My dad had it, I have it. I take great pride in that. There’s a particular way I like beds to be made and things like that.’
It is impossible to imagine Mr Johnson giving this answer or, indeed, giving any thought to the most efficient way to load a dishwasher.
Mr Sunak is also unfailingly polite. Asked about deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner’s rant against the ‘racist scum’ in the Tory Cabinet this week, he says that scum is ‘not a very nice word’ and appears baffled that anyone could describe one of the most diverse Cabinets in history as racist.
‘I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a racist,’ he says. ‘It’s not my experience of my party which has always displayed nothing but generosity and inclusiveness and compassion to me.’
Mr Sunak also questions whether people want to hear ‘that kind of language in public discourse’, adding: ‘It’s totally fine to disagree and to disagree passionately.
The debate should be filled with values and idealism and tons of vigour and tons of passion and tons of energy but it should always be respectful.
‘Whether it’s me, or you look around the Cabinet – it’s one of the most diverse Cabinets there’s been – and for someone to look at that and say there’s any kind of racism about the party or the Government I find very difficult to understand.’
It is easy to forget how new Mr Sunak is to all this. He was elected to Parliament only in 2015 and was catapulted into the role of Chancellor in February 2020 when his predecessor Sajid Javid quit after losing a power struggle with Dominic Cummings.
Just one month later, Britain was entering lockdown and he was having to devise the furlough scheme at breakneck speed.
Did he offer up a prayer?
‘Yes, I said many a prayer,’ replies the practising Hindu. ‘I remember when I announced the [furlough scheme], we hadn’t built it. We had to build an entire system to cope with that level of demand in a matter of weeks. Everyone was anxious. No one knew what was going to happen. It was an incredibly serious situation and it’s our job as a government to step in at that point and say, only the Government can take care of you in that situation.’
On the morning of the website’s launch, he was up at 5am receiving ‘minute-by-minute’ updates on progress, literally praying it would not crash as the media had predicted. ‘Talk about prayers,’ he says. The massive spending on furlough and other Covid support schemes has seen the Chancellor’s approval ratings soar. He has been the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Mr Johnson almost from the moment he took the job.
He is allergic to questions about whether he dreams of being PM, but never quite rules it out.
‘Er, the last 18 months have been challenging enough,’ he says when asked if he would like to move next door in Downing Street.
But he’d be good at it, wouldn’t he? ‘That’s very kind of you,’ he says before quickly steering the conversation back into less perilous waters.
How are relations with Boris Johnson? There have certainly been tensions over spending.
The Chancellor admits that he once joked about ‘taking away [Boris’s] credit card’, and is happy to defend that stance today: ‘Look, I take my responsibility to looking after the public finances really seriously.’
He did not manage to persuade the Prime Minister to opt for a cheaper fix to the social care crisis than the hefty tax rises announced last month. He says it was ‘agonising’ to raise national insurance: the move broke a solemn manifesto promise not to raise tax, and left Mr Sunak presiding over the highest tax burden in history.
‘No chancellor, let alone a Conservative chancellor wants to have to put up taxes,’ he says. ‘But we wanted to make sure the NHS is funded properly to recover and we wanted to get our public finances back under control.’
He is quick to point out that he has also taken ‘tough decisions’ on the spending side, whether it is cutting foreign aid, freezing public sector pay or stopping the £20-a-week top-up for Universal Credit, which ends next week.
The Chancellor is a wealthy man from a privileged background. After attending the prestigious Winchester College he joined investment bank Goldman Sachs, before moving on to work in hedge funds.
His wife Akshata Murthy, who ‘definitely does not’ refer to him by his nickname ‘Dishy Rishi’, is the daughter of an Indian billionaire and the couple have homes in California and Kensington, as well as his North Yorkshire constituency and Downing Street flat.
Can he really understand the cost of living crisis? Does he even do the shopping? ‘Yes, I do understand it,’ he says. ‘It is challenging at the moment, I appreciate that. And I do actually do some shopping although like everyone we do some shopping online as well.’
If the answer is not entirely convincing, he has nevertheless largely avoided being labelled a Tory toff.
The ability to wear his privilege lightly is reminiscent of a young Tony Blair. Uncannily, he also shares some of Blair’s speech mannerisms, peppering each sentence with the question ‘Right?’ as if to encourage the listener to agree.
In fact, he’s avoided labels altogether. While the PM likes to describe himself as a ‘Brexity Hezza’ (Michael Heseltine), and Cabinet colleagues Sajid Javid and Kwasi Kwarteng are happy to call themselves Thatcherites, Mr Sunak is his own man.
‘I always think, rather than label myself, people will just judge me on my actions. People have had to get to know me over the last year and a half. I was pretty new when all of this kicked off.’ So what are the Sunak principles? The first is being ‘up front’ with people about the decisions the country faces.
He is withering about Labour’s attempts to restore economic credibility at the party’s conference this week, saying: ‘It’s easy to make empty promises. I’m always going to be honest with people about how we pay for things.’
The second is the classic Tory principle of helping people to help themselves. Asked about the painful cut to Universal Credit, he responds with a long list of training schemes and job creation programmes the Government is funding.
‘All these things that I’m describing are all worth thousands of pounds. So it’s not that we’re not helping people: we are, and we’re putting money behind it.
The ability to wear his privilege lightly is reminiscent of a young Tony Blair. Uncannily, he also shares some of Blair’s speech mannerisms, peppering each sentence with the question ‘Right?’ as if to encourage the listener to agree
The Covid crisis may be past its worst, but the Conservatives are facing a storm of other problems as they head to Manchester for their conference today
‘We’re just doing it in ways that I think are going to make the most difference. You asked about my values – my strong point of view is the best way to help people is to provide them with the skills and opportunities to have good jobs and well-paid work, and we are throwing the kitchen sink at that.’
The Covid crisis may be past its worst, but the Conservatives are facing a storm of other problems as they head to Manchester for their conference today.
Mr Sunak is at the centre of all of them: from rising inflation to economic shortages and a planned budget and spending review at the end of this month.
Does he get to spend any time with his family? ‘It is tough,’ he admits. But the impact on his children is the one he feels the most keenly. He says living above the shop is a ‘huge advantage’ before acknowledging in the same breath that he often does not finish work until midnight.
Can the Government save his favourite festival from the looming shortages that threaten to derail it?
‘Lots of families struggle for different reasons. Lots of people are working really hard and not seeing their kids, I’m not alone in that.
‘I have two young girls aged eight and ten. I miss them, they miss me, and there’s not a lot I can do about that and they’re really understanding, I try to make the time I have with them count, but it’s a lot less time than any dad would want.
‘But I’m really lucky to have this job. It’s a great privilege, and it’s a great responsibility to do it to the best of my abilities because I know lots of people are counting on me to do it well. Right now that has to be my focus.’
He admits to being a Christmas fanatic, who has already started his shopping list and has to be ‘restrained’ from putting on festive music too early.
Can the Government save his favourite festival from the looming shortages that threaten to derail it? At this point, he turns very serious. The shortages, he says, are ‘very real’. The Government will do its best to ‘mitigate’ the impact, but he is not offering any guarantees.
Not even to his children? ‘As you can imagine there’s an enormous amount of focus on this from the Government because we know how important this is. My kids will be very upset with me if there isn’t a proper Christmas.’
What keeps him up at night and what makes him cry?
Star Wars (a huge fan of the series, he reportedly has his own collection of lightsabers)
How many cards are in your wallet?
What can you cook?
Scrambled eggs, Gordon Ramsay-style
Last book you read?
Ex-Southampton footballer Francis Benali’s inspirational autobiography
Coronation Street or The Crown?
What keeps you awake at night?
William Hague (who held Mr Sunak’s constituency from 1989-2015)
‘It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice’ (attributed to legendary British-American investor Sir John Templeton)
How do you relax?
Family walks with our new puppy (a fox-red Labrador called Nova)
What do you read to your children?
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (illustrated tales of strong women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo)
When did you last cry?
Can’t remember the last time, but I find it tough to hold it together when one of my young girls is upset or hurting