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Thursday, Sep 29, 2022

Explained: Will Rishi Sunak become the UK’s first Indian-origin PM?

While Rishi Sunak emerged victorious in the leadership ballot among Tory MPs, he faces a tough challenge in gaining the support of the Conservative Party’s rank and file.

Rishi Sunak attending a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, May 24, 2022. (REUTERS)

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are the final two candidates in the race to replace Boris Johnson as the leader of the Conservative Party and UK’s next prime minister. After leading every ballot so far, Sunak retained his popularity among Tory MPs and topped the fifth and final round of the leadership contest with 137 votes, while Truss came second with 113 votes on July 20.

Sunak, whose exit from the cabinet on July 5 marked the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s government, said he “is the only candidate” who can beat the Labour party in the next general elections and that the economic policies he introduced as finance minister “helped get through this country through an incredibly difficult period over the last couple of years.”

While Sunak emerged victorious in the leadership ballot among Tory MPs, he faces a tough challenge in gaining the support of the Conservative Party’s rank and file that will over the next month select the future PM, and so far seem to favour his rival, Liz Truss.

Who is Rishi Sunak?

The 42-year-old Tory MP was born in the UK’s Southampton to Indian-origin parents. His father was a general practitioner for the National Health Service (NHS) and his mother ran a local pharmacy. His grandparents were born in Punjab and had migrated to East Africa, before moving to Britain in the 1960s where they reportedly worked administrative jobs.

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He studied at the elite private school Winchester College, after which he went to Oxford University and Stanford University, where he received his MBA and won the prestigious Fullbright scholarship.

His impressive resume includes working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and various hedge funds. In 2009 Sunak married Akshata Murty, the heir of Narayan Murthy, the billionaire owner of Infosys.

Rishi Sunak’s political career

Sunak’s political career began in 2015 when he was elected the Conservative MP for Richmond, Yorkshire. An early supporter of Brexit, his career was catapulted when he was made a junior minister in former UK PM Theresa May’s government. Sunak, who backed Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership election in 2019, was rewarded with the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury that year. After a cabinet reshuffle in February 2020, Sunak was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post that lies third in the ministerial ranking, placed only behind deputy prime minister and prime minister.

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As the newly elected chancellor, he faced the tough challenge of leading the economy when the coronavirus pandemic raged across the world and lockdowns were imposed in the UK. Pledging to “do whatever it takes” to help UK citizens, he launched a £350 billion financial rescue package that led to a tremendous rise in his personal poll ratings, reported the BBC. He was praised for this scheme and his expensive job retention programme that, according to Reuters, averted mass unemployment.

The criticisms against Rishi Sunak’s policies

While Sunak was able to rapidly surge through the Conservative party in only a few years, he has faced scathing criticism from the opposition and the public during his role as chancellor.

Sunak was reportedly criticised for not giving enough financial support to households during the Covid-19 lockdown. Reuters reported that his tax-and-spend budget in 2021, where the government would impose high taxes on the public to later spend for the public, also placed Britain on course for its largest tax burden in around 70 years, weakening his claims of supporting lower taxes.

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During his tenure as chancellor, the UK also faced its highest rate of inflation in 40 years, as consumer prices rose by 9 per cent in April this year, with warnings from the Bank of England that it would increase by another 11 per cent. Consequently, various unions in the UK have begun striking for higher salaries. Last month, Britain faced its biggest rail strike in 30 years, when over 40,000 rail workers took part in a mass walkout and other groups have threatened industrial action as well.

Personal image of Rishi Sunak

The ‘golden boy’ of British politics also suffered personal scandals, when controversy erupted over his wife Akshata Murty’s finances. It was discovered in April that she had non-domicile status in Britain and thus, did not pay tax in the UK on her overseas income. While it was not illegal, the Labour party said it was “breathtaking hypocrisy” for the chancellor’s wife to have a reduced tax bill, while Sunak was raising taxes for millions of workers, reported the BBC.
Following the controversy, Murty announced that she would begin paying UK taxes. Reports indicated that she saved approximately £20 million in taxes on dividends from the shares she held in Infosys.

His image also suffered due to the ‘partygate scandal,’ when media reports and government investigations revealed that government officials including Johnson and Sunak had breached Britain’s strict lockdown rules and attended parties. Both of them were fined by the Metropolitan police for attending Johnson’s birthday party in June 2020.

UK Prime Minister election: What next?

Sunak and Truss will now begin the final leg of their race by getting ready for weeks of countrywide hustings, where they will try to convince the grassroots Conservative Party members to vote for them. Hustings are meetings where candidates debate policies and answer questions from the audience. The Guardian reports that there will be a total of 12 hustings, with the first taking place in Leeds on July 28.

The estimated 160,000 party members will vote for their preferred candidate by September 2, either by online voting or by post and the BBC reports they are expected to receive their ballots by August 1.

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While Sunak has continued to retain his popularity amongst the Tory MPs, Truss is favoured by the party’s rank and file so far, the electorate that will ultimately decide who would be future prime minister. A YouGov poll of 730 Tory members from July 21 placed Truss squarely ahead of Sunak, by 62% to 38%.

The final results will be announced on September 5.

First published on: 22-07-2022 at 04:02:14 pm
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