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Rishi Sunak’s Head Boy Energy

Becoming Prime Minister wasn’t the first significant position Sunak was handed – Winchester College taught him a thing or two about prestige without power, writes Richard Beard 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: PA/Alamy

This article was first published in the February 2024 monthly print edition of Byline Times. Subscribe now to get ahead of the curve.

After the infamous 49 days of Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak was identified by the Conservative Party as the safest available pair of hands. He was a Prime Minister who could be trusted to knot his own tie and lace his own shoes, a dependable front-man for the increasingly unbalanced Conservative Brexit belief system. In short, he was Head Boy material.

Boyish and immature were qualities previously observed in Sunak’s male predecessors. Neither David Cameron nor Boris Johnson could quite carry off the role of grown-up, as if at heart both men remained fans of escapades without consequences. 

Cameron had his boyishly unlined face and Johnson his unbrushed hair. He had his arch schoolboy’s vocabulary – the fourth-form Latin and ripe English poppycock – and between them the old Etonian pals looked confident of doing what they wanted and not getting caught. Or not being punished if they were.

Sunak’s boyishness is of a slightly different order. 

Keen, compliant, he too gives off a sense of arrested development – the old school old boy who never grew up. The first clue is the hair. 

Hair statements are a conspicuous feature of 21st Century politics and, in the hothouse of Sunak’s private all-boys boarding school, Winchester College, he’d have understood hairstyles as a form of communication, a way of giving or withdrawing consent. His neat side-parting consents to authority and to the inherently traditional values of any institution founded in 1382.

His daily care with a comb projects a message that once, in his schooldays, was graciously received: Sunak was favoured by the adults and appointed Head Boy. 

As Prime Minister, he retains an unmistakable Head Boy Energy.


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Importance Ingrained

In April 2022, Rishi Sunak made a donation of at least £100,000 to his old school. In an interview with Sky News, the then Chancellor said that Winchester College “helped make me who I am as a person and I’m sure it helps me to do the job in the way that I do it”. This sounds true enough, especially because since becoming Prime Minister Sunak has brought in former Winchester chums like James Forsyth as his closest advisors. 

In the same interview, Sunak thanked Winchester for the “opportunity”, like a contestant on The Apprentice. He isn’t wrong to do so, because in Conservative politics an education at a grand English public school is still today a gateway to the big end-of-series prize. 

Sadly for Sunak, achieving his schoolboy ambitions didn’t stop him getting stuck at Head Boy. He applies himself to public speaking, for example, as if no idea or policy is entirely his own, though his attempt at presenting as an adult should be commended considering his age. 

If he continues to do his duty and work hard he’s confident of earning adult approval and an impeccable termly report. Because isn’t that what always happens?

Take a look at the Conservatives’ poll ratings, and his own personal favourability with the public, and it would seem not.

Democracy was not a feature of Sunak’s appointment to the big job, now or then.

There was no public vote to make him Prime Minister and, back in the 1990s, Winchester’s Head Boy was anointed by the Head Man. I’ve asked former pupils what the position involved, but most have only vague memories of a ceremonial function, often involving Latin. No one remembers clearly what these Head Boys did (there were two of them, which Sunak has never managed to mention) and they tended to be ‘anonymous’.

I imagine it all felt much grander and more important to those who were actually chosen; a once-and-forever Head Boyness ingrained for the rest of a Head Boyish life. 

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From now on, Sunak was not to be criticised but congratulated. He could have been forgiven, aged 18, for looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. As Head Boy, his presence around the quads and classrooms was exaggerated in size, at least to himself. Looking ahead, the future appeared smaller and less simple. 

Now, from 2024, he can look back with the telescope the right way round – he’s learned that much at least – and school is magnified to look like the best days of his life. Worth a gift of a hundred thousand pounds, at least.

In his carefully curated biography – let’s call it the ‘Head Boy of Winchester College’ – is a widely-known, self-publicised fact about Rishi Sunak. It’s a boast he doesn’t recognise as a curse. If he did, he’d never have made Head Boy in the first place. Nor, as a schoolboy, could he have ingratiated himself so successfully if he hadn’t mastered an indifference to glaring class injustices or to the texture and traction of contemporary reality, which was refused entry at the Winchester College gates.

Sunak was proud to represent 800 years of elite plunder and token forays into the community. Later, he confirmed his horizons were so narrow and his mind so unquestioning he reliably came back with his gormless £100,000. 

Representation Not Responsibility

The Head Boy, by any old school measure, was someone who made the grown-ups happy. Children at boarding schools, like Sunak at Winchester, often find themselves making an unconscious promise to their parents not to fail or get into trouble. A stonking career compensates for the parental ‘sacrifice’ and justifies the family separation. 

But every step up the ladder is also an unresolved plea for attention and affection – a condition explored in 1970 by the Jamaican writer and politician Lucille Iremonger. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, like Johnson and Cameron before him, has the Phaeton complex.

Phaeton, in Greek mythology, is a frustrated child of the sun god Helios. He insists on driving his father’s chariot just for one day. When eventually he gets his chance he crashes the chariot, which in the ancient worldview explained why so much of Africa was a desert. According to Iremonger, a hunger for power was the tragic fate of children who suffered a trauma in childhood, and she developed her theory from a study of British prime ministers between 1809 and 1940. Most of them were abandoned by their parents in English private boarding schools. Phaeton’s blind sense of purpose, Iremonger notes, “could lead only to disaster for himself, and possibly for others”.

Pity the eager Head Boy. His character already compromised by boarding school adaptations, he now embraces the corruption of prestige without power. Head Boy is Sunak’s version of Tory immaturity, which like Cameron and Johnson he can use as a reason to be excused. 

In front of the COVID Inquiry, for example, he could convince himself he wasn’t included in significant decisions and that, to the best of his recollection, few communications of any importance passed across his desk. He may have been Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he was light on power and responsibility. The Head Boy always is.

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What Sunak’s Head Boy persona does bring with it is a brittle neediness. He needs validation, which is what got him the job in the first place. When he isn’t liked, or when he’s challenged, his Head Boy face drops. He gets tetchy and confused when he can’t find the right answer or when his answer isn’t accepted as right. 

He’s a good boy, he really is. He’s done well and worked hard, so why doesn’t he get the respect his unelected Head Boy status deserves? Why isn’t he loved? He has no idea, and if a playful Christmas video might help he’ll try it. It turns out he’s not very good at playful, not after so many years of pretending to be fully grown-up. 

Due to his immense personal wealth, but also due to his schooling, Rishi Sunak is vulnerable to accusations that he’s out of touch. During his Sky News interview, for example, he appeared unaware of the fact that he was echoing the more hapless contestants from The Apprentice. Those who thank Lord Sugar for the opportunity are the ones about to leave the show.

Thank you for the opportunity, Winchester College. Sorry I couldn’t have done better.

Richard Beard is the author of ‘Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England’

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