Voices: How can you not admire Rishi Sunak’s stoic dignity on leaving Downing Street?

Don’t you feel sorry for Rishi Sunak? I know I do: he emerged from 10 Downing Street this morning, greeted by the same rain that ushered in his snap general election back in May (for this prime minister, it never rains but it pours.)

His tired eyes and hangdog expression told the story of the night: a Labour landslide and an historic Conservative defeat. Perhaps, though, they also told the story of his entire poison-chalice premiership, one tainted by the four leaders who had come before him. He looked exhausted. Who wouldn’t?

But, for the first time in the campaign – in his whole tenure, in fact – he appeared, well... human, much like Theresa May when she’d choked out her resignation speech through tears in 2019. More than just human, however, Rishi was dignified. It may have been a particularly bitter end, but there was much to admire.

Perfectly composed, looking every inch the statesman, he stood at the famous lecturn with his wife, Akshata, behind him; grim-faced but glamorous in stripes, holding the umbrella he’d needed so desperately when he set out his stall in the hammering rain and set the tone for what was to be a disastrous campaign. It was as if she was ready to step in, should she be needed, to shield him from the real and metaphorical rain that threatened to fall. A stoic, supportive figure in the background, she didn’t take her eyes off him once. Behind every great man, and all that.

Family was central to Sunak’s speech – a stark contrast to his predecessor, Boris Johnson, who had blamed his party for “changing the rules”, compared himself to Cincinnatus, and mentioned only Dilyn the dog in his final address to the nation. When Sunak spoke of watching his young daughters’ light Diwali candles on the steps of Downing Street two generations after his grandparents had come to Britain, I saw the parental pride swelling in his chest and my own felt heavy with a shared sadness. I ached – not for a prime minister lost, but for a dad devastated by the upheaval he put his family through.

In fact, as he spoke of his family, thanking them for their sacrifices, the sun appeared to emerge from behind a cloud, as though the very mention of his loved ones was enough to chase away the storm.

His children, though, were conspicuous in their absence. Traditionally, prime ministers with children have left office by their sides – we saw this with Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Boris Johnson. Even the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt – less than an hour earlier – left No 11 with his wife, three children and family dog. Not Sunak. Perhaps he had decided to take a leaf out of his successor’s book and hold his children back to protect them from the harsh (and, often, accusatory) glare of the spotlight as they embark on the next stage of their lives?

Certainly, Sunak had only generous things to say about Starmer, calling him a “decent, public-spirited man” who he respected regardless of their disagreements. This sense of agreeable disagreement that had been so lacking in the election campaign was notable in Sunak’s speech and it was refreshing to see a politician bowing out with such grace. He appeared, behind that lectern, to be a decent man and I suspect he is. One who was simply given an impossible task. His apology, too, for the campaign and the heavy loss felt worlds away from some of his predecessors for whom sorry seems to be the hardest word. Perhaps there is hope yet, then, for a more respectful politics in the future.

When it was time to go, the Sunaks did so together, with Akshata stretching out her hand for her husband as he finished his speech. They left hand-in-hand, united. In a world that is increasingly divided, this felt significant.

We expect a lot of our politicians and rightly so. But it’s important, I think, that we remember they’re human, too. Arguably, Sunak’s speech this morning helped us do just that.