LONDON: Rishi Sunak will become Britain’s next prime minister after he won the race on Monday to lead the Conservative Party, tasked with steering a deeply divided country through an economic downturn set to leave millions of people poorer.
One of the wealthiest politicians in Westminster, Sunak will become the country’s first leader of colour — and the country’s third prime minister in less than two months.
He replaces Liz Truss, who only lasted 44 days before she resigned, needing to restore stability to a country reeling from years of political and economic turmoil, and seeking to lead a party that has fractured along ideological lines.
“It’s unite or die”, he told his lawmakers in parliament shortly after the announcement, according to one present in the room. Sunak told the party it faced an “existential crisis” and lawmakers should now focus on policy not personalities.
Sunak will step up to lead Britain as it heads for one of the toughest downturns in decades.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Sunak calling him the living bridge of UK Indians. “Warmest congratulations @RishiSunak! As you become UK PM, I look forward to working closely together on global issues, and implementing Roadmap 2030. Special Diwali wishes to the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership,” Modi said in a tweet.
The multi-millionaire former hedge fund boss will be expected to launch deep spending cuts to try to rebuild Britain’s fiscal reputation, just as the country slides into a recession, dragged down by the surging cost of energy and food.
Sunak, likely to be appointed prime minister by King Charles on Tuesday, told Conservative lawmakers in Westminster the party needed to tackle Britain’s economic challenges after political turbulence hit borrowing costs and pushed mortgage rates higher.
He will also have to work hard to hold Britain’s dominant political party together after some accused him of treachery earlier this year when he resigned from the cabinet of former leader Boris Johnson, triggering a wider rebellion.
Others have accused him of being too rich to understand the day-to-day economic pressures building in Britain, and question whether he could ever win an election for a party that has been in power for 12 years.
“I think this decision sinks us as a party for the next election,” one Conservative lawmaker told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The pound and British government bond prices jumped briefly on news of Sunak’s win but soon returned to their previous levels.
Britain has been locked in a state of perma-crisis ever since it voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, unleashing a battle at Westminster over the future of the country that remains unresolved to this today.
Johnson, the face of the Brexit vote, led his party to a landslide victory in 2019, only to be driven out of office less than three years later after a series of scandals. His successor Truss lasted just over six weeks before she quit over an economic policy that trashed the country’s economic credibility.
Historian and political biographer Anthony Seldon told Reuters that Sunak had the most difficult economic and political inheritance of any British leader since World War Two, and would be constrained by the mistakes made by his predecessor Truss.
“He would have no opportunity to capitalise on these being strange times because Truss has completely blown up that as an option. There is no leeway on him being anything other than extraordinarily conservative and cautious,” he said.
He added that Sunak had shown the ability to instil confidence during tough times, however, such as when he became finance minister just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Britain.
Polls show that Britons want an election.
“The Tories have crowned Rishi Sunak as prime minister without him saying a single word about how he would run the country and without anyone having the chance to vote,” Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, said in a statement, using the Conservatives’ nickname.
Labour has held record leads in opinion polls of more than 25 points ever since Truss’s budget sent shockwaves through financial markets.
Economists and investors welcomed Sunak’s appointment, but they questioned whether he can tackle the country’s finances while holding the party’s warring factions together.
Penny Mordaunt, who lost out to Sunak, said his election was an “historic one and shows, once again, the diversity and talent of our party,” she said. “Rishi has my full support.”
Other Conservative lawmakers agreed they needed to support the new leader. Asked if the party was ungovernable, former leader Iain Duncan Smith said it had been but that people were now relieved to have a new leader.
Veteran lawmaker Crispin Blunt told Reuters after Sunak met lawmakers in a room in parliament: “The party will remain united, not least because we don’t have a choice. In there, he showed a capacity to marshal the whole party.”
The first real test of party unity will come on Oct. 31, when finance minister Jeremy Hunt – the fourth person in the role in four months – is due to present a budget to plug a black hole in the public finances that is expected to have ballooned to up to 40 billion pounds. Hunt backed Sunak for leader.
Sunak’s appointment is another first for Britain – he will become the country’s first prime minister of Indian origin.
His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a period when many people from Britain’s former colonies moved to the country to help it rebuild after World War Two.
After graduating from Oxford University, he went to Stanford University where he met his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father is Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys Ltd.