This was Rishi’s most personal election interview yet – here’s what we made of it

Kamal Ahmed and Camilla Tominey
Kamal Ahmed and Camilla Tominey

The Prime Minister appeared on The Daily T podcast for what must be one of the most personal interviews he has ever given.

This is what we made of it:

Camilla Tominey

Having described Rishi Sunak in the past as “a bit wet”, “a former head boy who always handed in his homework on time” and someone who “sounds like he’s reading CBeebies’ book at bedtime” I was wondering what sort of reception the Prime Minister would give me.

I had heard that he was still bristling from The Telegraph leadership hustings in 2022, when I grilled him as to whether a billionaire Wykehamist could ever truly identify with the average British voter. When I saw him at the Conservative Party Conference last October, he suggested some of my Telegraph columns had been too critical of his administration. I pointed out that this reflected the thinking of a lot of our readers.

Sunak is most comfortable when speaking about policy, but one of the criticisms of the father of two, 44, is that he struggles with the personal stuff.

It’s odd because, as I pointed out during our 30-minute podcast interview, when I last chatted with him at length over a cuppa at the Pret A Manger in Marsham Street in the summer of 2019, he could not have been more human, telling me all about why he would be backing Boris Johnson as a future leader (“because he’s the only one who’s going to win”).

Little did we both know, then, that just a month after our cosy coffee meeting, he would be promoted to chief secretary to the Treasury, becoming chancellor seven months later.

Agreeing with me that his rise to power had been “nuts”, he said with understatement: “Things have happened relatively quickly for me”. Having confirmed that he intends to stay on as an MP, even if he loses – which looks the most likely outcome according to the pollsters – there’s something of the masochist about him.

We went into the podcast wanting to answer the question that the electorate is mulling over as we approach the July 4th general election: Who is Rishi Sunak, really?

What we were presented with is a politician who genuinely believes in doing his duty, modelled on the example set for him by his immigrant parents, Yashvir and Usha.

We’ve heard all the patter before about the influence of his GP father and pharmacist mother, who scrimped and saved to send him to Winchester after he failed to win a scholarship.

But what we heard more of is the family values - and strong faith, at the core of his ideology. “I believe in strong families,” he declared. “I know what I believe, for better or worse - I have a set of values that I believe in.”

When I put it to him that some Tories don’t think he is Conservative enough, he laughed at the notion of being described as “wet”, insisting he was truly a Thatcherite. “It doesn’t anger me, it puzzles me… if you ask my closest friends in politics who know me.”

While some wanting a more Reform offering may struggle to believe this “tax-cutting Nigel Lawson was my hero” narrative, it is hard to argue that a premier who believes in hard work, family values, strong faith and “doing the right thing” by the country, even if it makes him unpopular, isn’t cut from the Iron Lady’s cloth.

When he left the Daily T studio, he took me completely by surprise by giving me a hug. When you’re fighting for your political life, I guess it helps to listen even to your harshest critics

The Prime Minister met Daily T hosts Kamal Ahmed and Camilla Tominey at the Telegraph offices
The Prime Minister met Daily T hosts Kamal Ahmed and Camilla Tominey at the Telegraph offices - Paul Grover for the Telegraph

Kamal Ahmed

The UK’s two most significant election winners of the last 50 years, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, have more in common when it came to election campaigns than either of their supporting tribes would care to admit (although Blarites tend to be rather fonder of Baroness Thatcher than Thatcherites are of the rather worryingly grin-laden Blair).

They both knew how to connect who they were politically with the policies they then followed – their “values” led to their “actions”. They both knew how to frame debates in ways that voters understood – “keep it simple, stupid”. And they knew that the most powerful political skill a leader has is how to authentically talk about who you are - and therefore reveal what you would do in any given situation.

The fact that we still remember Thatcher’s “kitchen table economics” on tax and spend (economically dubious though such a comparison between state finances and household budgets may be) and Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” is testament to that.

For Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer – like Theresa May, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband before them – these are skills that are hard to learn and almost impossible to fake.

And it’s the reason that both, personally, struggle to connect what they are saying with what the public wants to hear. As I said to two Conservative Cabinet ministers during a rather jolly dinner at the rather desolate Conservative Party conference last year: “You must be glad Tony Blair is not staring at you across the despatch box every week?”

A sentiment with which they wholeheartedly agreed.

On the Daily T podcast today you certainly heard a different Sunak. Gone was the sometime tetchiness under questioning (he actually thanked me for my question on the wildly expensive, morally suspect and still not delivered Rwanda plan) and in came a new, relaxed air where values of faith and stories of family were to the fore.

Agree or disagree with what he says – and on public spending and tax there is still no substantive discussion by either party on the trade offs that the UK will need to make – the way he said it was revealing.

Sunak needs to appeal both to Conservative voters who are thinking of backing Reform (or staying at home, distressed at the Tory implosion) and “Labour curious” voters for whom “socialist” Keir Starmer has not sealed the deal.

He played to both in our Daily T interview - and a faint echo of that Thatcher/Blair ability finally surfaced.

The problem is that it is just over five weeks until election day.