London: Rishi Sunak will make history as Britain’s first Indian-origin Prime Minister after being elected unopposed as the new leader of the governing Conservative Party on Diwali as Penny Mordaunt withdrew from the race.
The 42-year-old former Chancellor of Exchequer, a devout Hindu, will enter 10 Downing Street to be the youngest British prime minister in 210 years after his audience with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace, which is likely to be on Tuesday. He will be the first Hindu Prime Minister of Indian heritage in the UK.
In his first address as Tory leader soon after the result was declared, Sunak said his priority would be to bring the country together and said he was “humbled and honoured” to get the “greatest privilege” of his life to give back to the country “I owe so much”.
“The UK is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” said Sunak, with reference to the economic turmoil he is inheriting following outgoing prime minister Liz Truss’ disastrous tax-cutting mini-budget last month.
“We now need stability and unity and 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 and build a better, more prosperous future for our children and our grandchildren,” he said from the Conservative Party headquarters near Parliament here.
“I pledge that I will serve you with integrity and humility and I will work day in day out to deliver for the British people,” he said.
Sunak will be moving into 10, Downing Street at a time when Britain’s economy is facing a triple whammy of slowing growth, high inflation triggered by spiral lung energy prices in the wake of the Ukraine war and a budget shortfall that has eroded its financial credibility internationally.
His first task will be to restore Britain’s international financial credibility after outgoing leader Truss’s plan for unfunded tax cuts and a costly energy price guarantee spooked the bond market.
He will have no option but to raise tax rates and make spending cuts that will be unpopular and may have unforeseen political consequences.
“Congratulations @RishiSunak on being appointed as Leader of the Conservative Party and our next Prime Minister. You have my full support,” tweeted Liz Truss.
Sunak’s vision for India-UK bilateral ties has gone beyond the opportunity for the UK to sell things in India, wanting Britain to also “learn from India”.
During the campaign in the previous Tory leadership contest, the former investment banker had said he wants to change the UK-India relationship to make it more of a two-way exchange that opens up easy access to UK students and companies in India.
After the dramatic exit of former prime minister Boris Johnson on Sunday and Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt conceding defeat on Monday, unable to meet the 100-MPs mark in time for the shortlist deadline, Sunak’s historic milestone as the country’s first non-white prime minister was all but sealed.
His victory marks a remarkable turnaround in political fortunes for the former finance minister, who lost out to outgoing Prime Minister Liz Truss just last month after his popularity among party colleagues did not translate in the wider Tory membership vote.
Truss stepped down last Thursday after 45 days in office, becoming Britain’s shortest serving Prime Minister.
The outgoing prime minister won on a mandate to slash taxes to spark economic growth, but she was forced to U-turn on almost all of her economic policies after her mini-budget sent the markets into financial turmoil and the Pound Sterling crashing.
Sunak had famously challenged Truss’ plans as “fairy-tale economics”, and his supporters repeatedly pointed out how he had got the big calls right and was therefore the right candidate to restore economic credibility.
The UK-born son of Indian-origin general practitioner father Yashvir and pharmacist mother Usha had spoken extensively of his migrant roots during the last campaign and also referenced making history by lighting Diwali diyas at 11 Downing Street as the first Indian-origin Chancellor of the Exchequer.
“Sixty years after my Naniji boarded a plane in East Africa (Kenya), on a warm sunny evening in October, her great-grandaughters, my kids, played in the street outside our home, painted Rangoli on the doorstep, lit sparklers and diyas; had fun like so many other families on Diwali. Except the street was Downing Street, and the door was the door to No. 11,” said Sunak, in his campaign video a few months ago.
That personal story also extended to a visibly emotional reference to his parents-in-law – Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murthy – as he hit back at attacks on his wife Akshata Murthy’s family wealth.
“I’m actually incredibly proud of what my parents-in-law built,” he said, during heated television debates over the past few months.
As a devout Hindu, Sunak is a regular at the temple where he was born in Southampton and his daughters, Anoushka and Krishna, are also rooted in the Indian culture.
He recently shared how Anoushka performed Kuchipudi with her classmates for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations at Westminster Abbey in June.
His self-made credentials of working his way through a non-scholarship place at one of the UK’s best schools, Winchester College, to a coveted Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Oxford University and then an MBA from Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar tick all the right boxes for the country’s highest political office.
His private sector experience at Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager seem to lend him the aura of someone who can be trusted in the face of harsh economic headwinds, further bolstered by his prescient warnings over Truss’ unfunded tax cuts.
His political career began with winning a safe Tory seat of Richmond in Yorkshire in 2015 and from junior roles in the Treasury he was suddenly catapulted to the post of Chancellor of Exchequer when his former boss, Sajid Javid, resigned in February 2020.