Rishi Sunak, Britain’s former finance minister, was elected the Conservative Party’s new leader on Monday, and will become Britain’s next prime minister — the first person of color to lead the country.
Sunak will be Britain’s third prime minister in less than two months, and his selection comes after Boris Johnson abruptly dropped out of the race to succeed Liz Truss late on Sunday.
Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, dropped out of the leadership race Monday, paving the way for Sunak to be elected party leader.
The announcement is the latest development in one of the most turbulent periods in British politics. Truss resigned last week after barely six weeks as prime minister, undone by a series of unfunded tax cuts that rattled global financial markets, sent the pound tumbling, and drove up government borrowing costs and mortgage interest rates.
“The United Kingdom is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” Sunak said moments after he was appointed as Conservative leader. “We now need stability and unity, and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together.”
An MP since 2015, Sunak was appointed chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020 by Johnson, then prime minister, just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Britain into a lockdown. Sunak was praised worldwide for his swift measures aimed at supporting businesses and Britons through the pandemic.
But that consensus frayed as Britain emerged from the crisis with vast amounts of additional debt and accelerating inflation. Sunak raised taxes in an attempt to balance the budget, much to the public’s anger. He was also criticized for his wife’s non-domiciled tax status, which ensured she did not pay full income tax in Britain.
Sunak ultimately resigned in July after reports emerged that Johnson had appointed a former chief whip of the party despite knowing of allegations of sexual misconduct against him. His departure from government was a key factor in forcing Johnson to resign soon after.
Sunak was initially seen as the favorite in the race to succeed Johnson but lost the party’s nomination to Truss, with many analysts saying Johnson’s allies and supporters voted against Sunak in retaliation for triggering the internal rebellion against the former prime minister.
Sunak remained a powerful figure backstage after Truss took over, and he was among the first to publicly warn her tax cuts would send the markets tumbelling, at one point calling them “fairytale economics.”
The son of Indian parents who emigrated from east Africa, international media has framed the 42-year-old as a contemporary politician who represents a more youthful and multicultural Britain. But in one particularly awkward encounter with teenage students, Sunak described himself as a “coke addict” before clarifying that he meant Coca-Cola, not cocaine.
News outlets have also highlighted how Sunak took his oath of office using the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holiest scriptures in Hinduism. During the George Floyd protests of 2020, he spoke out about his own experiences of racism in the U.K.
More recently, Sunak was one of several MPs involved in Britain’s “Partygate” scandal, having attended a 2020 gathering at 10 Downing Street while the country imposed strict lockdown measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. He later issued an “unreserved apology.”
The View From India
With Sunak set to become the first British prime minister of Indian heritage, many noted that his election fell on the festival of Diwali, which is celebrated as a national holiday across India.
The news of Sunak’s historic ascension was prominently covered by Indian media outlets Monday. The Times of India noted in its headline that Sunak is a “proud Hindu.”
“A glass ceiling has been well and truly broken. Let’s celebrate diversity in Britain and yes, hopefully in India too!” popular Indian news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai posted on Twitter.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Sunak on Twitter, offering Diwali wishes to the ”‘living bridge’ of UK Indians.”
Sunak inherits an economy rocked by inflation that recently topped 10%, vast amounts of government debt, sharply higher borrowing costs, and a looming recession.
The BBC reported that Sunak told MPs he would not call an early general election, but many voters have repeatedly demanded one this week. According to a recent poll from YouGov, more than 60% of respondents said they favor holding an early election following the appointment of the prime minister, and billboard adverts across the country have been covered with slogans calling for an election.