A few days ago, a Labour councillor from Wandsworth advised Rishi Sunak to “go back to India” with his “billionaire wife”. It was a rather daft suggestion. Sunak’s from Southampton, for a start. His wife is from Bangalore and one of many Indian passport-holders living in Britain. She’s certainly rich and to a certain sort of political activist, this makes her immediately suspect: a member of the reviled global elite, ripe for deportation. As we learned this week, she’s also a non-dom, so immune from certain British tax. Hence fresh uproar.
Akshata Murthy pays British tax on all her British earnings but not on income from her 0.9 per cent stake in Infosys, the $100 billion company built by her father. This makes her richer than the Queen and makes the Sunaks the most stupendously wealthy family ever to walk into Downing Street. And here’s the question: should this matter? Should Sunak’s wealth be held against him? How far should he be accountable for the tax status of his wife?
When he became Chancellor, he scored quite a lot of firsts. He’s a Hindu, who decked Downing Street in rangoli decorations for the Diwali festival. His Covid policies saw him create one of the most generous furlough schemes in the world. He’s arguably the most financially literate Chancellor ever, a millionaire in his own right after a stellar career in banking. In lockdown, he navigated the economic and the personal with an adeptness that led to sky-high approval ratings and talk of him as the next prime minister.
No one seemed to care, then, about his wife or his wealth. Not that he has ever tried to hide it: he throws Gatsby-esque parties for his constituents in his 12-acre Yorkshire estate. He drinks from an electronic flask that keeps his coffee at precisely the right temperature (54C). Then there’s his Peloton bike, his four cars and the lavish Californian hideaway which he recently offered up to Boris Johnson so the Prime Minister could relax without being accused of cosying up to (another) billionaire family.
Some well-heeled Tories grumble that Sunak has a demographic trump card, granting him immunity from the posh-boy jibes that are directed at others. “Cameron was treated like he had ‘Made in Eton’ tattooed on his forehead but no one says that about Kwasi Kwarteng,” says one. Perhaps so, but the dynamics of reverse snobbery are hard to fathom. And no one quite guessed that, in the end, Sunak’s wife would end up as the lightning rod.
The accusation is that, in spite of being mother to two British daughters, Akshata Murthy is not quite committed to this country by refusing to become a citizen. It is, to me, a familiar charge. After 15 years here, my wife still has no British passport. She regards herself as a Swede happily settled in Britain and doesn’t want to cut ties with the country of her birth. Sweden took in her refugee parents and made her life story possible. She sees a logic in paying Swedish tax on her Swedish savings, paying dues to both countries. She will, soon, be a citizen of both.
But dual citizenship isn’t an option open to Ms Murthy. India won’t allow it, so to take up a British passport she’d have to revoke her Indian nationality: quite a big deal. She may want to return, as a citizen, when her parents get older. To cut ties now, just to stop her husband being accused of having an “Indian wife”, is a bit much. Nor is it remotely necessary in a globally minded Britain that has always been relaxed about allowing foreign nationals to be permanent residents with “indefinite leave to remain”.
It’s the non-dom status that jars. She says that being “non-dom” is not a choice, but a status conferred on her by the tax authorities by dint of her nationality, assets and background – and until she has lived here for 15 years, she’ll have to stick with it. She does have a choice in tax. Having lived in three countries, with roots in all, she decided to pay tax depending on jurisdiction. Tax from her father’s Indian company is paid to India, tax from her Californian property goes to the US and tax on anything British is paid here.
Indian rules won’t allow her to move her family wealth into a British tax jurisdiction, so her only other option, if she wanted to appease her critics, is to pay double tax to both London and New Delhi. This could be argued as the price she must pay for being married to the UK’s tax raiser-in-chief. But it’s an interesting precedent: if a politician marries a foreign national who pays tax abroad, what should happen? Should non-dom status be illegal for politicians’ spouses, as it is for politicians? The question has never really come up before, because there has never been a Cabinet Wag like Akshata Murthy before.
Perhaps Sunak ought to have explained all this the moment he walked into government. It was well-known in Westminster that his wife is a non-dom: he declared it when he became a minister. It was always going to come out, and leaked to damage him. He was always going to need a clear defence. If he’s surprised by the interest in his family fortune, his enemies will portray him as naive and out-of-touch.
“It’s very upsetting and, I think, wrong for people to try to come at my wife,” Sunak says. He’s right, but it’s also politics, and it will likely get a lot worse. A wealthy family that lives in 11 Downing Street will always face scrutiny, especially over tax. This seems a sensitive point for the Chancellor: he recently compared himself to the actor Will Smith in that they have both had their wives attacked. If this line of attack affects him in a way that previous attacks did not, then he can expect much more.
For most of his time in office, Sunak has experienced acclaim bordering on adulation. Now tax rises are biting and the cost of living is rising almost as fast as his approval rate is falling. With this will come a whole host of far worse questions about his family, his donations to his old school and much more besides.
None of it will be pleasant. But if he has aspirations to stay in high office – let alone climb higher – he’ll have to get used to it.