LONDON – When Rishi Sunak was elected to Parliament in 2015, he recalled advice from his father-in-law, Narayana Murthy, a tech billionaire who is one of the wealthiest men in India. "In God we trust," said Mr. Murthy, "but everyone else needs to bring data to the table."
Now 39, and Britain's top finance official, Sunak is trying to apply that lesson to the largest economic bailout in the post-World War II country's history. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sunak has orchestrated a series of increasingly desperate efforts to protect Britain's 66 million people from the sudden dislocation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
On Thursday, Mr. Sunak released the latest: a package to pay 80 percent of the earnings of freelancers who lost income due to the country's closure. That added to measures last week to compensate people laid off from companies and more than $ 300 billion in aid to struggling companies.
In the process, Mr. Sunak, who was pushed to his job six weeks ago, has become one of the stars of this crisis. On one level, that's not surprising: Your job, after all, is to hand out money. But beyond that, commentators say, Sunak's serious, confident tone of delivery and empathetic tone are proving to be a better combination at the moment than Prime Minister Boris Johnson's slight lightness.
"Now, more than ever in our recent history, we will be judged on our capacity for compassion," said Mr. Sunak last week. "Our ability to overcome this will not be limited to what the government or business can do, but through individual acts of kindness we show each other."
On Thursday he spoke to plumbers, hairdressers, musicians and other freelancers. "I tell you this: you have not been forgotten," said Mr. Sunak at a press conference. "We will not leave you behind."
In a survey conducted by market research firm YouGov this week, Sunak has a 60 percent approval rating, with just 11 percent disapproval. Johnson's ratings have also risen, to 55 percent in the same poll, but he's still a more divisive number, with 35 percent disapproving.
In Conservative Party circles, Sunak is already being named as a future party leader and perhaps even the first prime minister of an ethnic minority in British history. Her Indian grandparents, originally from Punjab, came to England from British colonial East Africa in the 1960s.
"He is incredibly smart and as a very young chancellor, he has responded with great ingenuity to the enormous strains imposed by the coronavirus crisis," said William Shawcross, a writer and commentator who works for the government as a special envoy representing victims of terrorism. .
There is no shortage of obstacles in Mr. Sunak's way, much less how he is going to unravel the fiscal stimulus he is injecting into the economy. The lesson from the 2008 financial crisis is that bailouts can sow bitterness in people who believe they didn't get their fair share. For those who did, they can create unrealistic expectations.
"This crisis will force the government to do something quite close to universal basic income," said Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff. "Once you've done that, taking it away from people is very difficult."
As the public is uniting behind the government now, people are likely to ask tough questions later, especially about the austerity policies enacted by conservative governments, which left the National Health Service hungry and ill-equipped for the deluge of patients with virus.
After receiving high praise for his initial efforts, Mr. Sunak was criticized for not moving faster to protect self-employed people, many of whom saw their income disappear as soon as Mr. Johnson ordered the people who will stay in their homes. It was, Mr. Sunak said, "incredibly complicated,quot; to design a fair and comprehensive package, given the varied circumstances of these workers.
The delay contributed to Britain's adherence to the blockade that Mr Johnson launched on Monday. Thousands of freelancers and other self-employed people continued to go to work, invading London's undergrounds and raising alarms about the spread of the virus. Critics pointed out that compensation in this package won't be available until June, too late to help some struggling workers.
For a conservative to preside over such state intervention is a profound paradox. However, people who have worked with Mr. Sunak say he is well prepared for the task. Pragmatic and politically astute but not ideological, he is capable, they say, of designing policies to keep the economy afloat and to maneuver them through the government.
"As much as it hurts many of his rivals to admit it, it seems to be the complete package," said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. "It is almost as if I was born to play this role at this particular time."
Still, Mr. Sunak's success also reflects the fact that he accepted, as a condition of obtaining his job, far less independence than chancellors have historically enjoyed. His predecessor, Sajid Javid, was expelled in February after he challenged Mr. Johnson's demand to get rid of his own advisers and install people loyal to the prime minister.
Such adaptability, former colleagues said, is another hallmark of Mr. Sunak's success. The eldest son of a doctor and a mother who ran a pharmacy, Mr. Sunak has combined his Indian heritage with a classic Tory pedigree. Educated at the elite Winchester School and Oxford, where he graduated with first-class honors, he earned an M.B.A. at Stanford. He met his future wife, Akshata, in California.
After that, he worked as an analyst with Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds, one of which, The Children & # 39; s Investment Fund, was criticized for pressuring ABN Amro, a Dutch bank in which it held shares, to sell to the Royal Bank of Scotland. The acquisition contributed to the subsequent collapse of RBS.
Mr. Sunak launched his political career with a race for a safe conservative seat in Yorkshire. He charmed people in the rural valleys of the constituency, recruiting his father-in-law to hand out campaign flyers. When he won, local newspapers dubbed him the "Maharaja of the Yorkshire Dales,quot;.
In 2016, Mr Sunak decided to endorse Britain's exit from the European Union, not because of any passionate skepticism about the euro, people in the know said, but because he correctly calculated that it would position it to advance a Conservative Party that it was swinging in that direction.
As Britain goes through these hectic days and faces the long-term consequences of its moves, analysts said Sunak would likely lose some of its stardust. The question, they said, is whether it will be able to chart a new course, balancing the need to tax and spend in a post-pandemic world accustomed to a more interventionist state.
"When the final calculation is made, there will be praise for the government's response, but there will also be criticism of the era of austerity that left us in this position," Bale said. "He could personally escape because he was not the face of that policy, but I don't think the Conservative Party can escape."