June 15, 2024

Rishi Sunak Wins Contest to Lead U.K. and Confront Economic Storm

8 min read

After a period of chaos, Mr. Sunak, a Conservative, faces serious political and economic headwinds. He will be the first person of color and first Hindu to be prime minister.

By Mark Landler

LONDON — Rishi Sunak prevailed in a chaotic three-day race for leader of Britain’s Conservative Party on Monday, a remarkable political comeback that doubled as a historical milestone, making him the first person of color to become prime minister in British history.

The 42-year-old son of Indian immigrants, whose political career has already had its ups and downs, Mr. Sunak won the contest to replace the short-lived prime minister, Liz Truss, when his only remaining opponent, Penny Mordaunt, withdrew after failing to reach the threshold of 100 nominating votes from Conservative lawmakers.

Mr. Sunak, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, is expected to pull Britain back to more mainstream policies after Ms. Truss’s failed experiment in trickle-down economics, which rattled financial markets and badly damaged Britain’s fiscal reputation. He is also likely to offer a stark contrast to the flamboyant style and erratic behavior of Boris Johnson, his former boss and Ms. Truss’s discredited predecessor.

But Mr. Sunak will confront the gravest economic crisis in Britain in a generation, and he will do so at the helm of a badly fractured Conservative Party. Healing the rifts in the party, and leading the country through the economic crosswinds of the months to come, will require political skills at least as adroit as those that enabled Mr. Sunak to navigate the leadership contest.

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Mr. Johnson’s decision to pull out of the race on Sunday night cleared a path for Mr. Sunak, who had challenged Ms. Truss last summer but lost to her in a vote of the party’s rank-and-file members. With Mr. Sunak the only surviving candidate this time, he was not subject to another vote of the members.

It was a head-spinning reversal of fortune for Mr. Sunak, whose abrupt resignation from Mr. Johnson’s cabinet last July set in motion Mr. Johnson’s downfall and pitched Britain into upheaval, culminating in Ms. Truss’s brief, calamitous stint. After he lost the leadership contest to her, it seemed as if Mr. Sunak’s meteoric ascent had cratered as well.

Now, he will become Britain’s third prime minister in seven weeks, the youngest in two centuries and the first person of the Hindu faith to achieve its highest elected office.

A former investment banker whose wife is the daughter of an Indian technology billionaire, Mr. Sunak will also be one of the wealthiest people ever to occupy 10 Downing Street something that could prove a vulnerability at a time when Britons are struggling to pay soaring gas bills. The Times of London this year estimated the couple’s worth at more than $800 million, placing them among the 250 wealthiest British people or families.

But if his victory swept away another barrier in British politics putting Mr. Sunak in the same pathbreaking category as Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, and Benjamin Disraeli, its only prime minister of Jewish heritage it also thrust him into power at a singularly difficult moment.

“There is no doubt we face profound economic challenges,” Mr. Sunak said in brief, somewhat stiff, remarks after his victory. “We now need stability and unity, and I will make it my utmost priority to bring my party and country together.”

Britain is suffering the twin scourges of surging energy prices and a recession, as well as the self-inflicted damage of Ms. Truss’s free-market agenda: sweeping unfunded tax cuts that frightened markets, sent the pound into a tailspin and kicked off a rebellion of her own lawmakers.

The dramatic circumstances of Mr. Sunak’s rise reinforced the problems he will face in uniting a divided party. Had Ms. Mordaunt cobbled together the necessary 100 votes from lawmakers, polls suggested she would have stood a decent chance of beating him with the members, as Ms. Truss did.

Her failed challenge and Mr. Johnson’s aborted bid laid bare a party still torn by factions. Some members continue to view Mr. Sunak as Mr. Johnson’s political assassin, and the serial scandals of Mr. Johnson’s tenure, followed by the economic misfire of Ms. Truss’s, have left the popularity of the Tories in tatters.

The party now lags the opposition Labor Party by more than 30 percentage points in some opinion polls. The Labor leader, Keir Starmer, has demanded a general election, and those calls could grow louder as the new prime minister imposes a belt-tightening economic program in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.

Still, political analysts said the party’s swift conclusion to the leadership contest, which avoided a vote by the members, suggested that for now, the feuding Tory factions were committed to rallying around Mr. Sunak. In her withdrawal statement, Ms. Mordaunt called for people to back her rival.

“After the trauma of the last four or five months, even factions that do not support Sunak are going to give him a fair wind,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “They have to decide whether they want to win another election or spend a period out of government fighting with each other.”

British assets and the pound jumped after news of Mr. Sunak’s victory, raising hopes that his fiscal prudence and more technocratic style of governing would settle investors after the turbulence set off by Ms. Truss.

As a candidate, Mr. Sunak warned that her plan to reduce taxes at a time of double-digit inflation would be destabilizing. He called for keeping in place an increase in corporate taxes and holding off on a cut in income tax, both of which Mr. Sunak had proposed while chancellor. “Borrowing your way out of inflation isn’t a plan,” he said at a debate in July, “it’s a fairy-tale.”

Mr. Sunak said almost nothing about his plans during this more compressed race. But he is expected to hew to the agenda he laid out during the campaign last summer, which emphasized the need to curb inflation before reducing taxes. With Britain’s borrowing having risen as a result of Ms. Truss’s policies, he may be forced into deeper spending cuts than he once expected.

Some analysts expect him to retain Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor whom Ms. Truss recruited after she was forced to eject her first, Kwasi Kwarteng, the architect of the market-destabilizing tax cuts. Mr. Hunt reversed virtually all of Ms. Truss’s tax cuts, embracing ideas similar to Mr. Sunak’s.

“The pressure on him is to run the most stable, responsible, efficient government as is humanly possible,” Professor Travers said. “How the financial markets are going to respond is going to be major check on this government.”

The man chosen to face all these challenges was born in Southampton, on England’s south coast, to Indian immigrants who had moved to Britain from East Africa. His father was a family doctor; his mother ran a pharmacy. They saved to send him to Winchester College, one of Britain’s most academically rigorous high schools, and then to Oxford University, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics.

From there, Mr. Sunak worked at Goldman Sachs and at a hedge fund, and later earned an M.B.A. at Stanford University, where he met his wife, Akshata Murty. Her father is Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, whose wealth Forbes magazine estimates at $4.5 billion.

Mr. Sunak entered Parliament in 2015, rising quickly to become chancellor in 2020, where he won instant popularity by handing out billions of pounds to protect those who lost jobs in the coronavirus pandemic.

But his career was nearly derailed by reports that Ms. Murty held a privileged tax status that allowed her to avoid paying millions of dollars in British taxes on some of her income. It also emerged that he had retained a U.S. green card, which would allow him to settle permanently in the United States.

Mr. Sunak gave up his green card and Ms. Murty changed her tax status, but the damage was done. Though he survived the episode, it left him with lingering vulnerability at a time of economic hardship for million of Britons.

Critics often tar him as a jet-setter, out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. It doesn’t help that he and Ms. Murty own expensive houses in London, in his parliamentary district in Yorkshire and in Santa Monica, Calif. Or that he works out on a Peloton exercise machine and has been photographed wearing $500 Prada suede loafers and using a $200 “smart” mug that keeps coffee at a precise temperature.

“It will hinge on what people see him doing,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at Kings College London. “He will be vulnerable if he is seen as defending the privileged and the rich.”

Professor Menon said Mr. Sunak’s race was less of a factor in Britain than it would be for a comparable political figure in the United States. For one, he was elected by Conservative lawmakers rather than in a popular vote. While critics speculated that his Indian heritage might have hurt him with some party members last summer, his wealth was viewed as the bigger issue.

“It’s not like we’re living in some kind of post-racial nirvana here,” Professor Menon said. “We just do it somewhat differently than in the United States.”

On the streets of London, people reacted cautiously, perhaps reflecting weariness after months of turmoil in British politics.

“They need someone regular in charge — someone who knows what it’s really like out here, rather than looking down from the 26th floor,” said Hazel Wallace, 26, who works in an ice-cream parlor and views the cost of living as the biggest issue. “It’s survival of the fittest right now, what with everything going up.”

But David Smith, 69, a retired painter and decorator sipping a pint in the Bishop Blaize pub in Leyburn, said he was relieved that Mr. Sunak had replaced Ms. Truss. “He did warn the party that things wouldn’t be right with her, and nobody listened to him,” Mr. Smith said, adding that he expected Mr. Sunak to do “a fantastic job.”

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