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Explained: Who is Rishi Sunak, the Indian-origin leader campaigning to become UK’s PM?

Rishi Sunak announced his bid to become the UK’s next Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party on July 8, a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would resign from his post.

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

Signalling acceptance of his probable defeat in the race to be the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, Conservative Party MP Rishi Sunak said in an interview with the BBC on Sunday (September 4) that his job was now “just to support a conservative government”. The UK’s new PM will be announced on September 5.

Sunak had kicked off his campaign with the release of a slick video on social media, where he emphasised his Indian heritage and that his “family is everything” to him.

His bid was launched a day after the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson, who had consistently refused to leave despite growing criticisms from his own party, was forced to exit after more than 50 ministers left their government posts – a spree of resignations that began in July with the sudden exit of two senior-most ministers, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid.

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 policies of Rishi Sunak

During campaigning, Sunak cited inflation and did not show signs of cutting taxes in the short term, a move that may have hurt his chances.

Earlier, while Sunak was able to rapidly surge through the Conservative party in only a few years he faced scathing criticism from the opposition and the public during his role as chancellor. Sunak was 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. Various unions in the UK have begun striking for higher salaries. Britain recently saw its biggest rail strike in 30 years, when over 40,000 rail workers took part in a mass walkout.

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.

His wealth has also caused some alienation, with reports saying his wife was richer than the queen. 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. Loyal conservative voters may have been put off by Sunak’s later criticism of Johnson, while Truss stood by him for a longer period amid allegations.

What next for Sunak?

In the interview with the BBC, Sunak indicated Truss will emerge victorious. On being asked about future plans for running for the top job again, he said: “We’ve just finished this campaign. I’d say… I need to recover from this one.”

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He was also asked earlier in an interview if he would consider accepting a role in the new cabinet. “One thing I have reflected on is being in a Government cabinet over the last couple of years, you really need to agree with the big things…It’s tough, as I’ve found when you don’t…I wouldn’t want to end up in a situation like that again.”

First published on: 09-07-2022 at 07:16:52 pm
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