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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak: who is he and how did he end up with the top job in British politics?

Rishi Sunak in front of 10 Downing Street.
PA Images/Alamy

When Rishi Sunak lost to Liz Truss in the first Conservative Party leadership race of 2022, few were surprised. Many of the people given the chance to choose between the two candidates blamed Sunak for Boris Johnson’s downfall. They also preferred Truss’s “optimistic” economic policies to Sunak’s sombre assessment of the fiscal outlook. Where she promised generous tax arrangements, he argued that economic circumstances would be hard and taxes could not be cut in the short term. Indeed, he warned, they might even have to rise.

A few short weeks later and Sunak now finds himself taking over from Truss, vindicated for his criticisms of her tax plans. In the end, he was the only candidate to secure enough nominations to become leader of his party and therefore prime minister – a state of affairs partially driven by the need to avoid another divisive leadership contest. The Conservatives could not afford to continue projecting an image of disunity and chaos.

Johnson was briefly in the running for the job before announcing that he didn’t believe it would be right for him to return now. We may never know if he really did have enough nominations to stand, as he claimed.

Penny Mordaunt was a more credible candidate but an unlikely winner because of her lack of experience. Her failure to garner enough nominations to run in the leadership election left the way clear for Sunak.

Who is Rishi Sunak?

Sunak is, in many ways, a very traditional Conservative. He was born in Southampton and attended Winchester School – a very expensive and well-respected private school. He studied at Oxford and Stanford and worked in the financial sector for Goldman Sachs. He spent a few years living and working in Silicon Valley after graduating, where he met his wife Akshata Murty, the daughter of N.R. Narayana Murty, an Indian billionaire.

Sunak only entered parliament in 2015, taking the safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire – very Conservative country – succeeding former party leader William Hague. He was largely unknown outside the party until 2020 – a new MP making his way in parliament, impressing people but not holding high office.

However, things change quickly in politics, and the resignation of Sajid Javid in February 2020 left an opening in government. Johnson handed Sunak the job of chancellor – one of the greatest state roles in the UK. His honeymoon in the role was cut short by the arrival of COVID. Sunak found himself not only having to deal with the financial impact of a pandemic but was also tasked with appearing on television on a practically daily basis to update the country on his decisions.

Despite the pressure, Sunak turned the situation into a personal success. He was widely credited and praised for the furlough scheme that saw the government paying the wages of people unable to work because of lockdowns. Forgotten are the many days during which Sunak was accused of dithering about whether to introduce such a scheme in the first place.

Sunak’s popularity soared as people felt that his actions spared them from the worst financial effects of the pandemic, but with vaccines rolling out and the return of something like normal life, questions began to be asked about how Britain would recover economically.

This coincided with huge problems for the government. Johnson was exposed as having broken lockdown rules and fined by police. Sunak was also fined but escaped the level of criticism levelled at Johnson on the grounds that people appeared to genuinely believed that he inadvertently ended up at an illegal office gathering on his way to a meeting. This was the kind of story being peddled by Johnson at the time but was somehow more credible coming from Sunak, a man who seemed to have strived to have genuinely helped people rather than one who seemed to have no regard for rules generally.

In a telling reference to this time, Sunak wrote in his first statement after winning the leadership contest that his administration would be characterised by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.

More damaging were revelations that Sunak’s wife was claiming non-domiciled tax status. Prior to this scandal, Sunak had been spoken of as the most obvious successor to Johnson but the optics of a chancellor allowing his own family to sidestep tax rules stopped him in his tracks.

Johnson’s fall, Truss’s rise

In July 2022, Javid (who had returned as health secretary) and Sunak resigned at almost precisely the same time, triggering a flood of further resignations from their colleagues.

The decision ultimately forced Johnson to resign and the Tory membership is yet to forgive or forget, opting for Truss when given a vote in the summer. Meanwhile, the parliamentary party had always preferred Sunak so when Truss’s short tenure came to a crashing end, they avoided asking members by coalescing around their preferred candidate.

Sunak’s brief acceptance speech.

Now in post, Sunak has a big job to do. The financial situation in the UK when he resigned as chancellor was already bad. There followed two months of inaction while the Conservatives made up their minds about their new leader. Then Truss’s mini-budget tanked the economy. Coupled with the the global impact of the war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis, rising interest rates and concerns over the UK’s financial stability, Sunak faces a difficult time in office.

Sunak has to pull his party together, knowing that even if he was the first choice of many, some preferred other candidates – including Johnson. Meanwhile, the Labour Party are riding high in the polls and the potential solutions to the economic crisis will be painful and slow to make a difference.

How will Sunak take the Conservatives to victory in the next general election, due before the end of 2024 (or the beginning of 2025 at the latest) if the electorate are feeling the effects of higher taxes, higher energy bills and stagnating wages? His only hope is to distance himself from the more damaging parts of Conservative legacy – such as the current state of the NHS, industrial strikes and chronic under funding of public services – and associate himself with the more positive elements, such as a high level of youth employment.

Given recent events, his victory in the wake of Truss’s demise is no surprise. Perhaps the surprise is that anyone would want to be prime minister at all at the moment.

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