Rishi Sunak: Up Close review – you can almost see the shame on his face

Should Rishi Sunak be prime minister? Opinion polls currently say no. Watching Rishi Sunak Up Close – Tonight, the second of two election-year specials about the main party leaders in an election year, you wonder if Sunak himself might secretly agree.

Behind-the-scenes insights, gleaned by ITV deputy political editor Anushka Asthana via weeks of exclusive access, aim to reveal what kind of man the Conservative party leader is. The message he hopes to transmit is that he is a “thoroughly decent, highly intelligent problem-solver”; a sentiment helpfully voiced by his ally, energy secretary Claire Coutinho, while a good-natured family breakfast at 10 Downing Street paints a picture of a high-achieving but affectionate working father. We’re told that at weekends, the red berries and M&S yoghurt are replaced by a full English cooked by Dad.

Then we go back to Southampton, where Sunak was born and raised. On a nice suburban cul-de-sac, he swings an imaginary bat in front of the lamp-post that once served as a cricket stump, before recalling how his Indian immigrant parents took on extra jobs in order to send him to Winchester College, where he was a well-behaved pupil. Would his school friends have said he was a geek? “They still describe me that way!” says Sunak, letting out the wriggling chortle of a proper nerd. His demeanour during a visit to St Mary’s, home of Southampton FC, reinforces the impression that he is naturally cautious and humble: he seems genuinely, boyishly excited that ITV has been allowed pitchside.

Inside the old Sunak family pharmacy, however, Asthana asks an astute question about Sunak’s upbringing. He is the son of a GP and a pharmacist who, having become prime minister, has coldly refused pleas for a decent pay rise from beleaguered doctors and nurses. “Work is work, right?” he says. “Of course it’s disappointing to me that it’s not been resolved quicker, given that I know how important it is.” As he’s uttering that last phrase, he breaks eye contact and looks around the room where his mother used to conduct the simple business of handing local people the medicines they needed. On his face is, what? Wistful nostalgia, certainly. But there’s a flash of something else: regret, maybe even shame.

Photograph: ITV

So how did this lovable geek end up running the country, when his mum and dad thought him likely to become a doctor? “I wanted financial independence,” says Sunak. That’s one way of putting it. He worked as an investment banker, then as a manager of a hedge fund where he made millions gambling on companies and markets. Then he married the daughter of a billionaire. Fleetingly glimpsed, here is a potentially fascinating fable; a sort of Saltburn with spreadsheets, about a young man who rejected his background as a member of society’s top 1%, because he wanted to join the top 0.01%. Having done so, he became the leader of a political project dedicated to shoring up the interests of that elite, with the zeal and the nagging guilt of a relatively new member of the club.

When Sunak sits down with Asthana to be grilled on the pressing issues of the day, the programme falls into a format that is the scourge of political journalism on TV: the interview without follow-up questions. Because we’ve had to make time to show Sunak discussing how much sleep he gets each night (about six hours!) or whether his daughters really want him to brush their hair before school, there isn’t the opportunity to examine his prepared political lines. A question is asked, a disingenuous answer is given, we move swiftly on.

Quizzed on the granting of new oil and gas licences and whether this destroys his claim to be tackling the climate crisis, for example, Sunak is able to meaninglessly chide his critics for “virtue signalling” without having to defend the Tories’ bogus reasoning that “British” oil and gas will lower our bills and increase our energy security, despite being commodities sold on an open international market. Also passing unchallenged is a jaw-dropping answer trotted out about the monstrous Rwanda deportation scheme: “It’s about fairness. We believe in waiting our turn, playing by the rules. When people come here illegally, they undermine that.”

It’s softball all the way, but Asthana’s editors do leave in a couple of shots of Sunak regarding her with a mixture of exasperation and desperation. Which question causes him to make that face isn’t clear, and one suspects simply being questioned at all is what riles him: he looks like someone struggling to recall exactly when he signed up for all this. Asked about what will happen when he’s no longer PM, he seems honest and unguarded again when he says he’d love to spend more time with his kids. His wish might soon be granted.

skip past newsletter promotion

Rishi Sunak: Up Close aired on ITV1 and is available on ITVX.

The Guardian