When Rishi Sunak bumped into Rachel Reeves at a party on Tuesday night, they had a bit of a hug and a chat. And boom! Not since “Never kissed a Tory” T-shirts became a thing has there been quite so much excitement about quite such a brief encounter.
First, the location: a swanky Bloomberg party. Bloomberg has a reputation for throwing parties at the kind of place that appeals to the people it wants to impress. Clearly that’s a potential problem if you want your politicians to communicate via a kind of political semaphoring system. But if you want to host leading politicians on all sides for conversation about the issues of the day, where better than the Tate Modern when it has just launched a blockbuster Cezanne exhibition?
Faint shades of Magritte, this was not really a party in an art gallery. It was a party thrown by Bloomberg, the leading global business reporting hub, in the middle of a national financial crisis provoked by the chancellor and prime minister whom Reeves and Starmer hope to replace. On Tuesday it was, briefly, the City’s centre for water-cooler gossip.
Not going to this party because it looks bad when the times are hard, as a kind of performative absence, would have meant Reeves blowing the chance to impress people with her key crisis message: Labour is the party of sound money. Attendees were not Labour’s natural allies but that made it all the more important to be there.
The last time Sunak and Reeves were in the same place at the same time in public, it was the end of June and they were sounding off across the despatch box. She was accusing him of failing to act on stagnant pay levels and he was jeering about how much she paid her office staff.
Innocent days, innocent days. Sunak, of course, was still chancellor (although also prime minister-in-waiting); Boris Johnson was hanging on in the Downing St flat; and liability-driven investment strategies seemed like a reasonable way of getting a return for pension funds in an age of very low interest rates.
Three and a half months on, and it’s quite possible that for both Sunak and Johnson, politics as a career choice is over. Sunak came a distant second among Tory party members in the vote to replace Johnson. Johnson himself will be thinking about restoring his personal finances and keeping his head unusually low. Reeves, on the other hand, is on the brink of becoming Britain’s first woman chancellor.
But that hug. Professor Tim Bale at Queen Mary University, who knows a lot about how voters think and react, went on Twitter to condemn it as the kind of thing that turns ordinary people off politics. It would confirm the widespread prejudice that “politics is just a game” to “these people”, he said. He suggested it reduced the fiery exchanges in parliament to “performative hatred”.
Well, no. Probably the worst that can be said of Sunak v Reeves at the despatch box is that they are both so brainy that they actually engage on substantive issues. Although it would also be fair to say neither does jokes, you do get the sense that they both know what they’re talking about and—especially in Reeves’s case, since she is tasked with rebuilding Labour’s economic credibility—that matters. She conveys the sense of speaking for middle England.
However, it is also the case that they do have some things in common, over and above being members of parliament who have majored on the economic brief. They’re almost the same age (he’s 42, she’s 43). They were at Oxford at the same time, Sunak heading there from the grand public school of Winchester, Reeves from a south London comprehensive. She was a national junior chess champion. He was head boy. They both read PPE. They both got good degrees.
But then just as the textbook advancement through effort and talent brought them together at Oxford, it carried them apart. Reeves did a Master’s degree at the LSE, before rejecting Goldman Sachs in favour of the Bank of England. Sunak went to the US as a Fulbright scholar, joined Goldman Sachs and went on to become a partner in hedge fund management. She married a Cabinet Office civil servant, he married a fellow student from Stanford who is also the daughter of one of the world’s richest men and until recently, as a non-dom, did not pay UK tax on her worldwide earnings. Reeves has pledged to abolish that loophole.
Are there too many Oxford PPE graduates in politics? Almost certainly yes. Being brainy isn’t necessarily the same as being smart—as Sunak’s successor as chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, proves. But going through the Oxbridge mill patently doesn’t guarantee some kind of uniform product at the end. Reeves’s and Sunak’s career trajectories show that.
So surely the hug is far from a signifier that a tiny elite is “in on it together”. Much more likely, it was a kind of consoling recognition of that deeply painful aspect of politics; the unavoidable sense of personal rejection that comes from losing an election, in the party or in the country. I think, on the whole, I’d like my politicians humane enough to offer sympathy even to their most bitter rivals.
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