He’s got a glittering résumé, billionaire in-laws and enjoyed a meteoric rise in politics. But Rishi Sunak, Britain’s new prime minister, remains something of a mystery to many in the country.
Mr. Sunak, 42, was acclaimed Conservative Party Leader on Monday and formally became prime minister on Tuesday, replacing Liz Truss, who resigned after just 45 days in office. He makes history as Britain’s first person of Indian origin to hold the post and the youngest in more than 200 years. He’s also the country’s third prime minister in seven weeks.
“We now need stability and unity,” Mr. Sunak said in a brief speech on Monday. “I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together. Because that is the only way we will overcome the challenges we face.”
Mr. Sunak may look like a steady pair of hands after the chaos caused by Ms. Truss, but it’s far from clear how he will govern or how he will tackle the huge challenges facing Britain – from soaring gas prices to weak productivity and sluggish economic growth. He’ll also have to try to unite the fractious Tory Party, which has gone through five leaders in six years, while also convincing British voters that he can relate to them despite his polished background and penchant for “smart coffee mugs” that retail for £180, or $278.
The new prime minister “will inherit a poisoned chalice,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent. “A divided party. A divided country. And an economy that is rapidly coming off the wheels.”
Mr. Sunak’s victory comes with a certain amount of vindication. He finished second to Ms. Truss in a bruising leadership campaign this summer that pitted his experience as Chancellor of the Exchequer against her free-market ideology. Mr. Sunak tried to be the voice of reason during the race and he criticized Ms. Truss’s pledge to slash taxes as a “fairy tale.”
In the end, Ms. Truss proved Mr. Sunak’s point by introducing a tax-cutting mini-budget that caused so much financial turmoil that Conservative members of Parliament moved quickly to force her out. Those same MPs have now embraced Mr. Sunak in favour of a potential comeback by Boris Johnson, who the caucus forced out as Tory Leader and prime minister in July. Mr. Johnson had planned to run in the leadership but pulled out on Sunday, clearing the way for Mr. Sunak to win by acclamation.
While Ms. Truss had a collection of firm beliefs and a clear ideological bent, Mr. Sunak is harder to pin down.
He has professed to being a Margaret Thatcher Tory and a believer in free enterprise, but he oversaw huge increases in government spending as chancellor and put Britain on course for the highest tax burden in 50 years. Mr. Sunak also campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union, but he has not aligned himself with the Brexit wing of the Tory Party.
And while he will be the country’s first prime minister of Indian descent and the second-youngest ever – trailing only William Pitt the Younger who took office in 1783 at the age of 24 – his academic and professional background are very much in line with the Tory establishment.
Mr. Sunak was born in Southampton, England, where his father worked as a doctor and his mother ran a pharmacy. Both of his parents, who are of Indian descent, immigrated to Britain from East Africa. Mr. Sunak recalled in a BBC interview years ago how he spent his weekends as a child going to a Hindu temple and attending Southampton football matches.
He attended the elite Winchester College, a private school, and went on to earn a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University and an MBA from Stanford University. He joined the financial world as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and later served as a partner in a pair of hedge funds. While studying in the United States, Mr. Sunak met his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of a tech billionaire in India.
Mr. Sunak won a seat in Parliament in 2015 and spent one year as junior cabinet minister before Mr. Johnson named him chancellor in 2020. Mr. Sunak won plaudits for guiding the British economy through the pandemic and earmarking £350-billion (about $542-billion) to help workers keep their jobs.
But he also faced criticism for jacking up taxes and introducing gimmicks like “eat out to help out,” which encouraged people to visit restaurants during the COVID-19 outbreak by subsidizing meals. Some health experts said the program may have increased the spread of the virus.
He has also not been immune to scandal. Like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Sunak was fined for breaking lockdown rules by attending a party at Downing Street in 2020. He also raised eyebrows by keeping his U.S. green card when he was chancellor, and his wife got caught up in controversy about revelations that she had avoided paying millions of pounds in taxes by claiming she wasn’t a British resident. The arrangement was legal but politically toxic and Ms. Murty agreed to change her tax status.
Mr. Sunak’s first challenges will be delivering a fiscal statement next week and fending off calls for an election.
He will be the second prime minister in two months who has been chosen by the Conservative Party and not the country, something opposition parties made clear to point out on Monday.
“Since he was rejected over the summer, his own party rejected him, and now he has had another go at it,” said Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer, whose party is well ahead in most opinion polls. “He will become prime minister without a single vote actually being cast by the public.”
The Globe and Mail, October 24, 2022