Just seven weeks ago, it looked like everything might be over for Rishi Sunak.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer – the UK’s title for its chief minister of finance – made a high-stakes bet. He launched the attack that helped end Boris Johnson’s first term, running as his replacement, but ultimately lost to Liz Truss. Accepting defeat, he retired to the seats of parliament.
But in a sign of how unpredictable British politics has become, Sunak has triumphantly returned from the political wilderness to replace Truss, whose prime ministership imploded last week.
Sunak was the only leadership hopeful to secure the support of 100 conservative parliamentarians, the necessary threshold set by party officials for potential candidates. He will become the first person of color in the UK, and at 42, he is also the youngest to take office in more than 200 years.
Rivals – Johnson and House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt – were the last people to fall by the wayside.
Suna publicly declared on Sunday morning that she would participate in the contest. In a tweet, he wrote: “The UK is a great country, but we face a deep economic crisis. That’s why I’m standing to be leader of the Conservative Party and your next Prime Minister. I want to fix our economy, unite our Party and stand up for our people.”
Apart from that brief statement, this time he has not made much of a difference in leadership.
In the last contest, in the summer, they saw that he was the more moderate of the two candidates. Compared to Truss, he took a less ideological line on issues such as Brexit and the economy. (Unlike Truss, who became a Remain Brexiteer, Suna voted for the UK to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum).
Like Truss, Sunak promised a tough approach to illegal immigration and vowed to expand the government’s controversial Rwandan immigration policy.
Suna, whose parents came to the UK from East Africa in the 1960s, is of Indian descent. His father was a local doctor while his mother ran a pharmacy in the south of England, which Sunak says gave him a desire to serve the public.
He will become the first Hindu to become British Prime Minister, securing the position on Diwali, the festival of lights that marks one of the most important days in the Hindu calendar. Suna herself made history in 2020 when she lit the Diwali candles outside 11 Downing Street, the official residence of the UK Chancellor.
He has faced challenges at his elite level, having studied at the exclusive universities of Winchester College, Oxford and Stanford. He is known for his expensive taste in fashion and has worked for banks and hedge funds, including Goldman Sachs.
The tax arrangements of Suna’s wife Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire, have also been scrutinized.
Earlier this year, Sunak and Murty appeared in the Sunday Times list of the UK’s 250 richest people; the newspaper estimated it was worth 730 million pounds ($826 million).
Sunak’s election on Monday marks the culmination of what has been a rapid rise to power. He was elected as the first MP in 2015 and spent two years on the backbenches before becoming a junior minister in Theresa May’s government. Johnson gave Sunak his first major government role, appointing him chief secretary to the exchequer in 2019 and chancellor in 2020.
Suna has experience of fighting the economic crisis, led the UK through the Covid-19 pandemic and positioned himself as the “financially sound” candidate.
During the pandemic, Sunak put in place measures worth £400 billion ($452 billion) to boost the economy, including a generous licensing scheme, business loans and discounts for eating out at restaurants. But that stimulus came at a high cost and left the government scrambling to find savings.
Sunak was an early critic of Truss’s economic plan, which was criticized by investors, the International Monetary Fund and credit rating agencies. While he also advocated lowering taxes, he said they can only be cut after controlling inflation, which could take several years.
It came true in the summer when Truss warned that unfunded tax cuts could cause panic in financial markets. The British pound hit record lows against the US dollar as Truss and his chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng unveiled their plan. UK government bond prices rose at their fastest pace ever, and borrowing costs soared.
He also got the most votes from the deputies in the last leadership election – he comfortably cleared the new threshold with 137 endorsements. Although Truss eventually won the decisive vote among the core members, Suna was not far behind with 43% of the vote.
Johnson has made no secret of his belief that Sunak betrayed him by resigning from his government, which led to his resignation on July 7 after a series of scandals made his position untenable.
Johnson’s downfall came during months of parties held at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was under Covid lockdown restrictions. Johnson himself was fined by the police, making him the first prime minister in history to have broken the law while in office.
For a long time, Suna stood by Johnson, especially since he was also fined in the so-called Partygate scandal.
But he came under fire after Johnson was slow to act when his party chief whip, Chris Pincher, was accused of sexually assaulting two men at a party in early July. (Pincher later said he had “drank too much,” though he has not directly addressed the allegations.)
Sunak’s resignation from Johnson’s cabinet over the Pincher scandal set in motion a string of high-profile resignations, leading to Johnson’s death and ultimately his rise to Downing Street.
Suna faces a daunting task. The UK is in the midst of a deep cost of living crisis and one of the greatest inequality. Financial markets are spooked after Truss’ economic policy missteps.
The Conservative Party, no longer popular after 12 years in power, has plunged into total chaos over the past four months and is now trailing opposition Labor in the polls. Sunak’s only comfort is that no elections are to be called until January 2025.