London: Conservative party pragmatism and Asian work ethic has given the United Kingdom its first Indian-origin Prime Minister in the 75th year of the country’s independence from its former colonial power. Rishi Sunak’s phenomenal rise in UK politics is the culmination of the years of wealthy and successful minority ethnic members following the private school-Oxbridge-city job recipe for success. They occupied key positions in business, politics, bureaucracy and media, but occupying Number 10 Downing Street marks a dizzying rise.
Liz Truss’s disastrous policies, Penny Mordaunt’s uninspiring leadership and Boris Johnson’s casual relationship with truth, all paved the way for Sunak to take over the reins of the country. He became the only candidate to bag the mandatory support of 100 Tory MPs by Monday afternoon, which was the prerequisite to become the leader of the Conservative party. If there were more than one leadership hopeful to cross the 100 MP mark (there are 357 Tory MPs in the House of Commons) the battle would have continued with Conservative members across the country putting their votes. But moments before the 2 pm (UK time) deadline, Mordaunt dropped out, leaving the stage open for Sunak.
He takes over at a precarious time. The British economy is staring at a recession, inflation is at an all-time high and the ruling party has been riven with factionalism due to multiple power struggles. Sunak’s experience as the chancellor, confidence with the business leaders and overwhelming support from MPs gives him a sound footing, although there will be constant demands for a general election by the opposition Labour party. Last week at a Diwali party in the iconic Speaker’s Room in the House of Commons, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told me that a general election is what he wants.
Observers attest that the Tory party is a ruthless beast and while it certainly works in their favour to not have a general election, Sunak’s ascendancy gives them the time and scope to put their best foot forward against Labour in 2024 when the elections are scheduled. At this moment, Sunak’s and Tory party’s fortunes are inextricably intertwined. This will work in multiple ways in ensuring that the rank and file of the Tory party stands behind him, for nothing unsettles the individual MPs more than the prospect of losing their seats.
The larger message will not be lost when he meets King Charles III at Buckingham Palace which will mark his official appointment as the prime minister. Just over seven decades ago, the writ of the British monarch ran over the land of Sunak’s forefathers, and now it will be an Indian-origin politician who will lay the contours of the King’s speech to spell out the government’s policies. Over the past few years, a host of Asian-origin politicians like Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Suella Braverman, Alok Sharma and Sailesh Vara have occupied chairs in cabinet meetings, but what is remarkable is that Sunak, who was a late entrant, has trumped them all.
It is not just the Asian-origin politicians from whom he stands apart, for the first time, the net-worth of a Prime Minister and his family will be higher than that of the reigning monarch. That is largely due to the fortune of his wife Akshata Murthy, who is the daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy. The couple own multiple homes in the US and the UK, which made and will continue to make headlines as the average UK family faces rising cost of living. In the past Sunak has made efforts to reach out to the wider public by talking about the struggle and hard work of his parents, which ensured he got the best education. At 42, Sunak is also the youngest UK PM in 200 years.
In his first address Sunak began by thanking his predecessor Liz Truss, but reminded that the focus remains the economy: “We now need stability and unity, and I would make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together.”
Sunak was born in Southampton to a doctor father and a pharmacist mother who ran a family business after coming to the UK as migrants. He attended a well-heeled private school, and worked in a restaurant run by a Bangladeshi family friend during the holidays and helped his mother balance the account books. After graduating from Oxford, he went to Stanford where he met Akshata and worked in the banking sector. He got the safe seat of Richmond, in Yorkshire, which was previously held by former foreign secretary William Hague who gave his support and tutelage to Sunak.
In March 2015, Mahatma Gandhi’s statue was installed in Parliament Square overlooking Westminster, and now an Indian-origin politician will occupy the most important position inside it. It’s time for Diwali at Number 10.