London: Conservative party pragmatism and an Asian work ethic have given the United Kingdom its first Indian-origin prime minister in the country’s 75th year of independence from its former colonial power. Rishi Sunak’s phenomenal rise in British politics is the culmination of years of rich and successful ethnic minorities following the private-school-Oxbridge-city recipe for success. They have occupied key positions in business, politics, bureaucracy and the media, but occupying Number 10 Downing Street marks a dizzying rise.
The disastrous politics of Liz Truss, the uninspiring leadership of Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson’s casual relationship with the truth all paved the way for Sunak to take the reins of the country. He became the only candidate to receive the mandatory support of 100 Tory MPs by Monday afternoon, a prerequisite for becoming leader of the Conservative Party. Had there been more than one leadership hoping to break the 100 MP mark (there are 357 Tory MPs in the House of Commons), the battle would have continued with Conservative members across the country casting their votes. But moments before the 2pm (UK time) deadline, Mordaunt dropped out, leaving the stage open for Sunak.
He takes power at an uncertain time. The British economy is staring into recession, inflation is at an all-time high, and the ruling party is riddled with factionalism due to multiple power struggles. Sunak’s experience as chancellor, the trust of business leaders and the overwhelming support of MPs give him a sound basis, although there will be constant demands from the opposition Labor Party for a general election. Last week at a Diwali party in the iconic Speaker’s Room in the House of Commons, Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer told me that a general election was what he wanted.
Observers confirm that the Tory party is a ruthless beast and while it certainly works in their favor to avoid a general election, Sunak’s supremacy gives them the time and space to put their best foot forward against Labor in 2024 when the election is due. At this point, the Sunak and Tory fortunes are inextricably intertwined. This will work in a number of ways to ensure that the rank and file of the Tory party are behind him, as nothing worries individual MPs more than the prospect of losing their seats.
The bigger message will not be lost when he meets King Charles III at Buckingham Palace, marking his official appointment as Prime Minister. Just over seven decades ago, the British monarch’s order passed over the land of Sunak’s ancestors, and now the Indian-born politician will set the contours of the king’s speech to outline government policy. Over the past few years, a host of politicians of Asian origin such as Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Suella Braverman, Alok Sharma and Sailesh Wara have taken the chair at cabinet meetings, but what is significant is that Sunak, a late entrant, has surpassed them all.
It’s not just politicians of Asian descent who stand out, for the first time the net worth of a prime minister and his family will be greater than that of a reigning monarch. This is largely due to the wealth of his wife Akshata Murthy, who is the daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy. The couple own multiple homes in the US and the UK, which has made and will continue to make headlines as the average UK family faces rising costs of living. In the past, Sunak tried to reach the wider public by talking about the struggle and effort of his parents, which provided him with the best education. At 42, Sunak is also the youngest Prime Minister of Great Britain in the last 200 years.
In his first address, Sunak began by thanking his predecessor, Liz Truss, but reminded that the focus remains on the economy: “Now we need stability and unity, and I would make it my highest priority to bring together our party and our country.”
Sunak was born in Southampton to a doctor father and a pharmacist mother who ran the family business after coming to Great Britain as migrants. He attended a well-to-do private school and worked at a restaurant run by a family friend from Bangladesh during holidays and helped his mother balance the books. After graduating from Oxford, he went to Stanford where he met Akshata and worked in the banking sector. He was given the safe seat of Richmond, Yorkshire, previously held by former foreign secretary William Hague who gave support and patronage to Sunak.
In March 2015, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was installed in Parliament Square overlooking Westminster, and now a politician of Indian origin will occupy the most important position within it. It’s Diwali time at number 10.