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Sun, surf — and the politics of taking a holiday

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When I read last week that Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was about to head off on his first proper family holiday in four years, I felt a rush of incredulity.

Surely even the most dreary workaholic striver would have been able to get away at some point in that time.

Yes, it would have been impossible in the depths of the pandemic for Sunak, who became a Treasury minister in July 2019, chancellor in February 2020 and prime minister in October last year. 

And yes, I believe the press aide who told reporters Sunak tried to take a break on a Spanish island after losing the Tory leadership contest to Liz Truss last year, but had to race back after about 15 hours when the Queen died. 

But still. Four years? Advertising this sort of family holiday failure is seriously odd, not least because it manages to invite both suspicion and resentment.

Plenty of people do not take as much vacation as they are entitled to or need. But that is because many can’t. They may live in a notorious no-vacation-nation such as the US, the only advanced economy that does not guarantee workers paid holidays. 

Or they might have a manager who pressures them to keep working. Or they might be poor.

Even in the relatively wealthy EU, 29 per cent of citizens could not afford a one week holiday away from home last year, official data shows. That’s down from 40 per cent in 2013, so things are improving. But the figure soars among the poorest, as it does outside the EU, and it’s not necessarily because people are retired or unemployed.

“I haven’t had a holiday for 13 years,” a British woman in her 50s with three low-paying jobs told researchers studying the rise of in-work poverty before the pandemic. “In fact, if I can, I take annual leave so I can work somewhere else.”

The point here is not that Rishi Sunak is one of the wealthiest prime ministers the UK has ever had. The more relevant fact is that, pandemic aside, he has considerably more freedom to go on a family holiday if he chooses than many of those he leads.

Of course, this assumes he actively wants to go on such a vacation. Many people do not. Margaret Thatcher was famously not fond of holidaying. Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed to be phenomenally anti-vacation.

Michael O’Leary, the voluble chief executive of budget airline Ryanair, once told me he only went on family beach holidays because he had to, and could tolerate building sandcastles with the kids for precisely five minutes. “After that it’s, ‘Oh Jesus, will someone come and rescue me!’ I’m praying for a crisis.”

There is no great shame in this. A lot of successful leaders feel the same way. One long-running study by Harvard Business School academics of how chief executives of large companies spend their time, found they worked on 70 per cent of their vacation days, for an average of more than two hours a day.

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It would not be a massive shock if a renowned micromanager such as Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs man with a reputation for workaholic tendencies, also struggled to switch off on a family break.

If he does, though, I’d rather he said so.

Instead, we are supposed to believe, in the words of his press secretary, that “the PM believes that work-life balance is very important, particularly spending time with your family, especially if you have young kids”. But also, he is not necessarily “a good example of practising what you preach”.

As with much else about Rishi Sunak, it is difficult to know exactly what he thinks.

Still, I am glad he is finally going on a holiday, to California, with his wife and two young daughters, and I hope they all have an enjoyable time. This is not guaranteed. Politicians’ holidays often go badly. If they’re not being criticised for being too posh or too dull, they are interrupted by events back home.

With luck, that will not happen to Sunak this year and not just for his own sake. As a pandemic-scarred workforce reports rising levels of burnout, he is setting an excellent, if belated, example. I hope it’s followed by many more like it. 


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