LONDON—Rishi Sunak is to become Britain’s third prime minister of the year after winning a hastily arranged leadership contest on Monday in the wake of Liz Truss’ lightning downfall. After losing out to Truss in the summer, Sunak is on his way to Downing Street after his leadership race rival, Penny Mordaunt, withdrew from the contest at the last minute.
While Truss became Britain’s leader after being voted in by Conservative Party members—less than one percent of the electorate—nobody has voted for Sunak to become prime minister.
His rise to the top job came after he successfully thwarted Boris Johnson for the second time. As Johnson’s finance minister, Sunak’s resignation in July over Johnson’s handling of a colleague’s sex scandal triggered the ministerial exodus which ultimately brought Johnson down. As Liz Truss’ administration imploded after just 44 days, many Tory lawmakers thought an improbable Johnson comeback was just what the U.K. needed.
Over the weekend, Johnson held talks with Sunak and Mordaunt in a bid to secure a deal in which they would row in behind him to reunite the Conservative party. Both turned Johnson down. What role—if any—Johnson will play in frontline British politics remains to be seen.
Sunak will now be moving into a Downing Street besieged by a colossal horde of problems. Britain’s rampant inflation and rocketing energy and food prices have thrown the economy into chaos, a menace made worse by Truss’ disastrous handling of public finances which has left the nation’s fiscal reputation in urgent need of repair. Sunak will also likely be forced to preside over unpopular spending cuts at a time when workers in key sectors including transport and health are already striking over pay.
He’ll also have to find a way to reverse his deeply divided party’s record-breaking collapse in the polls ahead of the next general election, which will come no later than January 2025. Even if Sunak’s policies prove popular, aspects of his personal history before and during his time in Westminster may come back to haunt him, too.
The 42-year-old’s rise has been astonishingly rapid. The son of a family which migrated to Britain in the 1960s, Sunak studied at Oxford and Stanford before entering investment banking at Goldman Sachs before making millions in hedge funds. It was at Stanford that he met his future wife Akshata Murty, the daughter of Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy.
Between them, the couple are believed to have built a combined fortune worth around $820 million—around double the wealth of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort, according to The Guardian. The Sunday Times named them the 222nd richest people in the U.K. earlier this year, the first time a frontline politician has appeared on the list. The couple privately own four homes worth around $17 million, including a Santa Monica penthouse valued at $7.2 million.
Sunak was first elected as a Conservative lawmaker in 2015 and was appointed Johnson’s finance minister just five years later, aged 39. He was running the U.K. Treasury when the COVID pandemic hit, and his leadership credentials were put under extreme pressure for the first time.
Among his major decisions were the establishment of an unprecedented furlough scheme to avoid mass redundancies during lockdowns, followed by a subsidized dining scheme to support the decimated hospitality sector. His August 2020 “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme was later blamed for causing a significant rise in COVID infections.
But Sunak’s popularity really started to plummet earlier this year amid an unholy alliance of controversial policy decisions and a slew of simultaneous scandals. His financial plans in spring pushed the U.K.’s tax burden to its highest level in 70 years, a move despised by traditional Conservative voters.
Then around the same time, it emerged that Sunak’s wife exploited a special legal status to avoid paying British taxes on the millions she earns in dividends from the IT business founded by her father, in which she held an estimated $835 million stake. The opposition Labour leader accused Sunak of “breathtaking hypocrisy” for raising taxes on others as his own family apparently reduced their own liabilities.
To make matters worse, it soon emerged that Sunak held a U.S. green card while serving as Britain’s finance minister. That essentially meant he’d declared himself a permanent American resident for tax reasons whilst also overseeing tax hikes at home.
And also in April, Sunak became the U.K.’s first sitting finance minister to be criminally sanctioned. Along with Boris Johnson, Sunak was fined for breaking lockdown rules during the Downing Street “partygate” scandal which appalled a British public who, in some cases, had missed out on their loved ones’ final hours in order to diligently obey the government’s pandemic rules.
Together with his perceived betrayal of Boris Johnson, Tory party members opted for Truss over Sunak in the final showdown of this summer’s leadership race. Defeated, Suank didn’t have to wait long before getting his second chance. On Monday, he became the first British prime minister of Indian origin—and the first Hindu PM; appointed on the first day of Diwali.
Exactly what he intends to do with his newfound power remains to be seen. But taking the reins after Truss, Sunak will be considered an improvement if he’s still in office by Christmas.
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