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The Perfect Tory? Rishi Sunak’s tutors reveal his student persona

Olivia Boyle explores the legacy Rishi Sunak left behind in Oxford, and questions if his actions as Prime Minister can be explained by the time he spent here.

Breaking news: Sunak hasn’t changed much. It’s the late nineties, Lincoln College is awaiting the arrival of an earnest, economically and socially conservative PPEist. Enter Rishi Sunak. Rumour has it that Sunak started his Lincoln years as a perfect Tory, and has remained that way. As is seen in his giddy Commons speeches, addressing striking workers and refugee policy is all still a bit of an academic exercise to Sunak. 

I contacted two of Sunak’s tutors from his time as an undergraduate studying PPE at Lincoln College (1998-2001). With the aim of understanding his head-school-boy parliamentarian manner, my plans were scuppered when both tutors pleaded the fifth under the laws of respectful “privacy” and “confidentiality”. 

Michael Rosen, now professor at Harvard’s Department of Government and then Senior Tutor, even offered an analysis of why Brits have been so hooked on knowing what politicians used to be like. Consolation? Hardly. Rosen stated “I think it’s unfortunate the way that people in Britain look back on what someone was like at University — even, indeed, at school — as if that defined who they are many years later.” 

Yet, surely, to get to the crux of contemporary politics, there is nothing more valuable than peering into the nascent Conservative mind. 

The unintelligible and cataclysmic mini-budget of Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss at the end of last year was explained by their university beginnings. As Ian Hislop told Politics Joe, Truss and Kwarteng were having the same fun and games that they had been having in their Oxford JCRs. 

Tracing the student history of our leaders is precisely what must be done to understand just how politicians masterminded their politics. 

Rosen’s words suggested that, “in twenty years time”, I – and the other young people still left reeling from the question of just how the Conservative government has been through three Prime Ministers in under six months and still believes it’s fit to represent the voice of a people – will appreciate his hope that we cut politicians some slack. But, in twenty years, Sunak’s tenure may well have secured the slow and painful death of the NHS, the welfare state, and the state educational system. Entirely privately educated and now sitting on a staggering £730m (including the estate of his wife, Akshata Murty), it seems that his student years were the ones that nipped any chance of equitable, empathetic policy-making in the bud.

Sunak studied PPE but dropped Philosophy after his first year (perhaps unsurprisingly, say what you will). Professor Max de Gaynesford oversaw some of his first-year learning – Logic and Descartes, as de Gaynesford told Cherwell. No one could deny that Sunak is a man of logic though humane thoughtfulness does not seem to be a strongpoint – take Braverman’s secure position in Cabinet despite a history of ludicrous policy-making. 

De Gaynesford made it clear, however, that Sunak worked hard: “his seriousness, intelligence and hard work were reflected in his First” and he “belonged to a particularly committed PPE cohort who were a joy to teach – there were I think seven Lincoln Firsts in PPE in his year.” On paper, Sunak had his target and reached it. Whether this was an ethically and morally sound target is a fact lost to time. Though, efficiency and targeted action is exactly what it takes to become an oligarch, as George Monbiot described the Premier in conversation with Politics Joe. Plato would agree: oligarchy is the perfect answer for the money-hungry. Not that Sunak would know.

One of Sunak’s targets realised at Oxford was reportedly Number 10 itself. Michael Rosen told Tatler, when Sunak became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020, that “fellow students said he wanted to become Conservative prime minister. But I don’t think anyone took that too seriously.” 

In the same piece for Tatler, it is recorded that “his luck has given him the politics of the head boy”. In Office, at Oxford, in the Oxford University Investment Society and at Lincoln College, Sunak followed through on this reputation. Sunak was a mouse at Oxford: his presence was largely unnoticeable, but a few crumbs appeared when he left. During his time here Sunak made his way up the ranks of the Oxford University Investment Society (OUIS). Term cards show he was Treasurer in Michaelmas 1999 and became President of the Society at some point in the following two terms, but there is no evidence of him from Michaelmas 2000 onwards. The OUIS leaflets have an abundance of advertisement from Goldman Sachs, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he secured his placement there and promptly left the society. 

A stickler for the rules irrespective of general good-doing. It was said, probably as a result of this, that “outside of Lincoln College Sunak had no reputation…he was a nobody, much like Blair.” Indeed, following a dusty afternoon of Cherwell-archive-raiding, I felt I had uncovered nothing on Sunak. Other than that he was a “grayman”, a non-entity at Oxford, as the Union librarian told Cherwell

Again, Goldman Sachs advertisements filled the Rishi Sunak-shaped void in the Cherwell archives. Sunak left Oxford with a position with the bank in 2001. He didn’t leave the University with quite the same tarnishes as the other chums of Johnsonian Oxford, just a steady, bureaucratic job. He fulfilled the prophecy that his peers had for him as told to Tatler: Sunak’s a “nerdy teetotaller who was just very clearly going into business.” Rishi Sunak’s time at Oxford nourished the fledgling Conservative’s thoroughness, money-focus and, well, dullness. And following his eventful Oxonian predecessors, it appears this was and still is perfect Tory material.

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