How Rishi Sunak built a close relationship with Blackstone’s bosses

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In February, Rishi Sunak posed for photos beside Blackstone founder Stephen Schwarzman at the groundbreaking ceremony for the private equity giant’s new European headquarters in London.

Shovel in hand, the UK prime minister pointed to a model of the planned 10-storey development and, according to people who witnessed or were briefed on the event, quipped: “Where’s my office?”

The joke was taken by some who heard it as illuminating two truths: Sunak is unusually relaxed in the company of the Blackstone leadership and, despite Downing Street denials, he is thinking about his future after this year’s general election, which his Conservative party is expected to lose.

Sunak’s effort to bolster links with the private equity group could be partly explained by Blackstone’s institutional heft at a time when the battered British economy badly needs votes of support from overseas.

Blackstone has invested more than £70bn in the UK, acquiring assets ranging from caravan parks and warehouses to British symbols such as the London Eye and Madame Tussauds. Its activities have also occasionally attracted a backlash, such as when it imposed big rent increases for railway arches occupied by small businesses.

At the groundbreaking event — also attended by US ambassador to the UK Jane Hartley — Schwarzman was pictured wearing a hard hat emblazoned with Blackstone’s stock market ticker “BX”, a heart symbol and “London”, championing the group’s commitment to the city. 

Sunak’s visit to the construction site in Mayfair came on a busy day that included the first meeting in 2024 of the prime minister’s business council. But it was not officially announced by Number 10.

Schwarzman wearing a hat celebrating Blackstone’s admiration for the UK capital © Blackstone/LinkedIn

Assessing the extent of the prime minister’s contact with businesspeople is complicated by the fact that some personal contacts are not required to be systematically recorded in the official Downing Street diary.

Sunak meets a large number of senior business leaders but it was Schwarzman who joined him for a 30-minute conversation in front of top global executives and money managers at the prime minister’s exclusive investment summit at Hampton Court Palace in late November. 

In a boost for Sunak, Schwarzman said it was “a real achievement” for the UK to have halved inflation from its 11.1 per cent peak and praised the country’s “pro-business” ethos and rule of law.

During the session, the buyout boss also spoke glowingly of the potential benefits of artificial intelligence, an area in which he and Sunak share significant interest.

Sunak’s background in the financial sector means he is seen by some business executives as more of a known quantity than his predecessors, many of whom have limited private sector experience. After leaving Goldman Sachs, he worked at hedge funds the Children’s Investment Fund and Theleme Partners.

People familiar with the Blackstone relationship say that Sunak remains close to Lionel Assant, Blackstone’s head of European private equity, who worked with him at Goldman more than 20 years ago.

More recently, Sunak has developed close ties with the pair at the top of Blackstone. Schwarzman and the firm’s president Jonathan Gray have met the prime minister multiple times since he entered Downing Street in 2022, according to people familiar with their relationship, including over dinner and with their spouses.

Such was the admiration for Sunak within the investment group’s top echelons that even with the Tories trailing dramatically in opinion polls, Blackstone staff had the impression their bosses still believed the prime minister could win the next general election, two people said. 

“I’ve heard Jon Gray direct, eulogising about him,” said one of the people who had dealings with the private equity executive. 

But the contacts between Sunak and two of the most powerful men in US finance have fuelled speculation — including inside Blackstone — that the prime minister has consulted Schwarzman and Gray on his post-political career.

That is vehemently denied by both Blackstone and Downing Street, with the firm saying it is “categorically false” and a person close to Sunak saying he has had “no discussions whatsoever with anyone about a future back in finance”.

The US’s ambassador to the UK Jane Hartley, left, attended the groundbreaking event © Blackstone/LinkedIn

Weeks after taking up a shovel alongside Sunak, Schwarzman was one of four foreign nationals awarded an honorary British knighthood in March, joining previous recipients such as Disney boss Bob Iger and media mogul and former US presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg. 

Knighthoods are given to individuals who make a “pre-eminent contribution in any field of activity”. Schwarzman was specifically honoured for his philanthropy, including £201mn in donations to Oxford university, which called the first tranche of his donation in 2019 “the largest single donation to the university since the Renaissance”. One person close to the situation said the process to nominate Schwarzman began well before Sunak became prime minister.

If the polls are right Sunak will be an ex-prime minister at the age of just 44, younger than Liz Truss (47), David Cameron (49) and Tony Blair (54) when they left Downing Street.

He will not be short of money, not least thanks to his wife Akshata Murty’s £550mn stake in Infosys, the Indian IT company co-founded by her father Narayana Murthy.

That is one reason Sunak’s allies say it would be absurd for the prime minister to be trying to line up future work while still in office.

A Number 10 spokesman said: “It is completely untrue that the PM [prime minister] has spoken to anyone at Blackstone about anything other than government business. He is completely focused on the job in hand and delivering for the British people.”

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