The hot-mess mantle of Conservative Party leadership – and the prime minister’s keys to No 10 – just changed hands again. But who is Rishi Sunak?
In a worthy imitation of London buses, the usual long wait for a new British prime minister has closed dramatically in recent times. Just 42 days ago, we published a beginner’s guide to Liz Truss. Hopefully you didn’t waste your time reading that. Tonight (NZ time), Rishi Sunak will go to Buckingham Palace and formally become the new prime minister.
It caps a period in British politics so outlandish that parody has been lapped several times. At least in 21st century New Zealand political parties’ ritualistic disembowelments have taken place while in opposition. In the UK, the bizarre, inward looking carnivals of gore have played out in the governing party.
So who is the latest lead in the psychodrama of Westminster? His name: Rishi Sunak.
He’s made history already
Liz Truss has set an unenviable new record for the shortest serving UK prime minister – less than half the time of the previous title-holder, who died in office. The leadership contest, which saw Truss defeat Sunak in the election among Tory members, lasted longer (54 days) than her premiership (44 days).
Sunak can boast a bunch of firsts before he gets his feet under the desk. He’s the first person of colour to become prime minister. The first Hindu. The first of Indian descent. The youngest prime minister in modern history – aged 42, he was born on May 12 1980, making him 75 days older than Jacinda Ardern. Elected to the safe seat of Richmond in Yorkshire in 2015, his seven years from MP to PM is the fastest on record.
A quick recap
Boris Johnson won a landslide with a mandate to get Brexit done and for better or worse he did that, but also became embroiled in scandal after scandal, most prominently in the “partygate” brouhaha, and despite clinging on, buoyed by Operation Save Big Dog, the July resignations of his health secretary and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, left him with no choice but to quit, sparking a protracted leadership contest in which Tory MPs whittled the field down to Sunak and Truss, with the latter winning on a platform of cutting taxes to be funded by the promise of growth which would happen because the taxes would be cut and it would be fine, except it wouldn’t be fine, said Sunak, who lost, but was vindicated when it really, really wasn’t fine, as the mini-budget put forward by the new PM and her chancellor and ideological BFF Kwasi Kwarteng, introducing swingeing tax cuts, a massive subsidy of energy prices and nothing to pay for it all, prompted a plunge in the pound and a crash in bond markets which made the borrowing required astronomically expensive, sent interest rates north and left the economy deep in the shit, meaning she had to sack Kwarteng, and cling on without any Operation Save Big Dog, but having to sack her home secretary for misuse of a personal email and then a calamitous night in the commons over a whipped vote on fracking which saw her senior whip resign and then unresign, confirming utter chaos in the governing party and triggering Truss’s resignation, which prompted the 1922 committee of backbenchers and its chair Sir Graham Brady, who is at this point basically the Ant and Dec of all the mayhem, to call a truncated, week-long-max, leadership contest, sparking the emergency return of Boris Johnson from a Caribbean holiday in Operation Reinstate Big Dog, which may seem comical given where this sentence began but was very real for a moment there, can you believe these people, honestly, but anyway he pulled out despite saying he had the requisite 100 members nominating him, and he could have won if he wanted to, because, well, because among other reasons it wasn’t “the right time” for rover’s return, and with Penny Mourdant falling just short of the 100 signatures only Sunak had the numbers, and accordingly the electorate of the Conservative Party membership is denied another vote and he becomes leader and PM unopposed. Simple.
A coronation then
He doesn’t become king – though he is richer than Charles III, which hopefully won’t make for any awkward pen violence during the formal chat with King Charles tonight (NZ time). But there is little doubt that the avoidance of a ballot among a membership, and at least the appearance of a united parliamentary party, provides at least the semblance of a less divided Conservative machine.
Unity is the ‘utmost priority’
“There is no doubt,” said Sunak in a brief speech last night, “we face a profound economic challenge.” He added: “We now need stability and unity and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together.”
No doubt he was seeking a serious mood for serious times, but it looked less like a prime ministerial address than an audition for Thunderbirds.
Rishi is rich
Very rich. He’s a former investment banker with Morgan Stanley and hedge fund manager. His firm, Theleme Partners, is registered in the Cayman Islands. His fortune was placed in a “blind trust” when he became a minister. Sunak’s wife is the daughter of an Indian tech billionaire, with their combined wealth estimated at almost £800 million – more than 1.5 billion NZ dollars.
Earlier this year, it was reported that his wife, Akshata Murthy, had successfully gained “non-dom” tax status, thereby avoiding millions of pounds in UK tax on earnings abroad. Sunak called it a “smear” but she subsequently shifted her arrangements so she does pay tax in Britain.
In April it was reported that the £400,000 indoor pool at his countryside holiday home cost, amid an energy crisis, £13,000 a year to keep heated.
He’s the son of immigrants
Sunak’s parents migrated from east Africa to the UK in the 70. His father was a Southampton GP and his mother owned and ran a pharmacy. In a high-spec video released to launch his campaign in the previous leadership contest (he was silent in the rematch) he gave it the full American British Dream.
Unlike David Cameron and Boris Johnson he did no go to Eton. He went to its uber-posh rival, Winchester.
He also wants tax cuts
Sunak thought Truss’s approach was fiscally irresponsible – a “fairytale” – but he does want to reduce taxes when the books are less dire. He is a self-described Thatcherite, and it is speculated he will now oversee as prime minister another period of austerity.
After being appointed by Johnson in 2020 as chancellor, overseeing the nation’s finances, Sunak launched the furlough scheme to keep people in work during the Covid-19 crisis, but later said he had opposed lockdowns and that it had been “wrong to empower scientists”. He voted to back Brexit, but described it as a difficult decision.
He’s a self-described Coke addict
He was doing a bit, he meant Coca-Cola. He is a teetotaller.
He’s been called Dishy Rishi
While the people of the United Kingdom might find themselves struggling to afford food or pay power bills amid an energy crisis through the imminent winter, they can warm their toes on the knowledge that Rishi Sunak was in late 2020 voted Britain’s sexiest MP, with second place going to his opposite number, Labour leader Keir Starmer.
Don’t expect an election soon
Given that the big Conservative parliamentary majority was achieved when they were helmed by the leader before the last one, and given the political and economic tumult since 2019, it might seem like a sensible idea to have one of those, you know, elections. But for all the calls for a mandate, the Labour lead in polls would likely translate in the short term to a wipeout for the Conservatives; neither their leader nor MPs (with a small handful of exceptions) want to go to the polls anytime soon. The very latest an election could be held is January 2025.
There is one pillar of stability in the political establishment
The most stable thing about No 10 Downing Street is its cat, Larry, who has presided for almost 12 years, all with a Conservative prime minister as his human. The second half of Larry’s tenure has now encompassed six different prime ministers.