Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW : Going for Broke – The Rise of Rishi Sunak by Michael Ashcroft

This book was published in late 2020 following the appointment of Rishi Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer earlier on in the year, with Michael Ashcroft noting that it was the first book on the relatively new MP, but adding “I somehow doubt it will be the last”. On that, the honourable Lord is certainly correct.

The book glides through Sunak’s youth with relatively few anecdotes or notable stories, but recounting his elevation to Parliament in glowing terms. And Ashcroft never really moves away from this, it’s a gushing book perhaps designed to flatter Sunak rather than be a compelling study of how the politician thought, acted and recovered from his mistakes. There are very rare moments in the book where any hint of Sunak making a mistake is mentioned, it’s almost as if the now Prime Minister has written a chunk of this text himself.

The reader is rarely left in any doubt of Sunak’s brilliance, such as when the author is writing about the politician’s first promotion onto the Ministerial ranks, “with a first-class degree from Oxford, an MBA from Stanford and several stellar years in the City under this best, Sunak clearly outclassed many of those who surrounded him in the BEIS department”. Soon after, as if Ashcroft thinks that this isn’t enough praise, he adds “[Sunak] approached the job with characteristic charm and professionalism”.

The rest of the book manages to find new superlatives alongside reusing some previous ones, with such observations as “such a question might have disconcerted a less assured performer, but Sunak did not miss a beat” in response to his appointment as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, his first Cabinet role. It’s also clear that the author doesn’t have as much time for Liz Truss, as when referencing her period as Chief Secretary, he mentions that “the department muttered about the amount of time and energy she devoted to her Instagram account”. And that’s pretty much the entire coverage of Liz Truss in the book, although there will be more coming as Ashcroft is writing a biography of the country’s shortest serving Prime Minister.

Any reader hoping that the book might become more balanced when Sunak became Chancellor will perhaps be a little disappointed. Ashcroft says about Sunak’s first budget that “he passed his first test as Chancellor in spectacular fashion, surpassing expectations, impressing colleagues and commentators and putting himself at the forefront of the government”. With the Chancellor’s measures on Covid, the book finally starts to pile on the criticism, noting “glitches with Sunak’s other measures had begun to emerge”. Not a killer criticism by any means, but an acknowledgement at least that the Chancellor wasn’t practically perfect in every way. It’s as critical as the author ever gets.

Although clearly fighting from Sunak’s corner, there’s more even handed coverage from Ashcroft about how Sunak handled the rescue package for businesses in 2020, accepting that there were a range of criticisms for the proposals. There’s comments about how Sunak thought up the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ but very little commentary on the legacy of that scheme, it all means that there are just too many gaps in the narrative of this book.

In the epilogue, the author notes that “we leave the tale at a point when our subject is liked as well as admired”, which is perhaps stretching the late 2020 opinion polls just a little. In fairness to the author, it’s clear he was never trying to write an Anthony Seldon type biography and it would have likely been too early to do so in any event. More balance in the book might though have brought out more telling truths about Sunak and helped the reader understand him even more, rather than just trying to sift between the various written forms of what a marvellous politician he was.

However, the book does have some interesting elements in terms of the Sunak’s own family and the very wealthy one that he married into. As a biography it’s lengthy and does cover the major promotions in Sunak’s career, but it all perhaps leaves the reader with more questions about the now Prime Minister than answers.