New Delhi: It is official – Rishi Sunak is now the closest anyone of Indian origin has ever been to take charge as British Prime Minister, after his Conservative Party colleagues voted overwhelmingly in his favour with 137 votes in the final round today.
The 42-year-old former Chancellor is not assured a similarly easy ride as he faces a much tougher electorate of the Tory membership base, which has shown favouritism for his rival Liz Truss in most recent surveys.
However, with another head-on televised debate scheduled on the BBC for Monday between the final two contenders and a series of hustings to be held up and down the UK, there is time for the MPs’ favourite to try and replicate that result at the end of postal ballots on September 5.
“This leadership contest is about more than just being the leader of our party, it’s about becoming the custodian of our United Kingdom,” said Sunak, in one of a series of debates and interviews since he launched his leadership bid earlier this month.
He has tried to strike a balance between the personal and professional, from the launch of his bid with the story of his Indian family that emigrated from east Africa in the 1960s.
Boris Johnson announced on July 7 he was quitting as Conservative leader after a government rebellion in protest at his scandal-hit administration.
“My mum studied hard to get the qualifications to become a pharmacist. She met my dad, an NHS [National Health Service] GP, and they settled in Southampton. Their story didn’t end there, but that is where my story began,” he shared, with reference to his general practitioner father Yashvir and mother Usha.
That personal story recently also extended to a visibly emotional reference to his parents-in-law – Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murty – as he hit back at attacks on his wife Akshata’s family wealth.
During a live TV debate, he said: “There is commentary about my wife’s family’s wealth. So, let me just address that head on because I think it’s worth doing, because I’m actually incredibly proud of what my parents-in-law built.
“My father-in-law came from absolutely nothing, just had a dream and a couple of hundred pounds that my mother-in-law’s savings provided him, and with that he went on to build one of the world’s largest, most respected, most successful companies that by the way employs thousands of people here in the United Kingdom. It’s an incredibly Conservative story, actually it’s a story that I’m really proud of and as Prime Minister I want to ensure that we can create more stories like theirs here at home,” Sunak said.
Rishi Sunak faces a much tougher electorate of the Tory membership base, which has shown favouritism for his rival Liz Truss in most recent surveys.
As a devout Hindu, Sunak is a regular at the temple where he was born in Southampton and became the first Chancellor to light Diwali diyaas outside his office-residence of 11 Downing Street in November 2020.
His daughters, Anoushka and Krishna, are also rooted in the Indian culture and he recently shared how Anoushka performed Kuchipudi with her classmates for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations at Westminster Abbey last month.
But beyond the personal, he has had to face down attacks from his opponents over his record as Chancellor until his resignation precipitated the exit of his former boss, caretaker Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has stood firm on his focus on inflation rather than any vote-winning tax cut promises to woo a traditionally low-tax favouring Conservative Party membership base.
“I will get taxes down in this Parliament, but I’m going to do so responsibly. I don’t cut taxes to win elections, I win elections to cut taxes,” he declared.
His self-made credentials of working his way through a non-scholarship place at one of the UK’s best schools, Winchester College, to a coveted Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Oxford University and then an MBA from Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar are seen as ticking all the right boxes for the country’s highest political office.
Britain saw sky-rocketing inflation, which on Wednesday hit a new 40-year high of 9.4 per cent in June.
His private sector experience at Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager seem to lend him the aura of someone who can be trusted in the face of harsh economic headwinds.
His political career began by with winning a safe Tory seat of Richmond in Yorkshire in 2015 and from junior roles in the Treasury he was suddenly catapulted to the post of Chancellor of Exchequer when his former boss, Sajid Javid, resigned in February 2020.
He proved the doubters who feared his inexperience of high office would see him overpowered by his new boss, Boris Johnson, wrong as he credibly led the economic response to the COVID pandemic.
The furlough scheme to protect jobs and several grants for struggling businesses won him praise from all sides of the political spectrum. He was constantly touted as the heir apparent to Johnson as the next Tory leader and Prime Minister, until that took a beating with some of his less popular tax hike policies in the wake of the pandemic and a partygate fine for attending a birthday event for his ex-boss in breach of lockdown rules.
The former finance minister will be hoping his natural ease before the cameras, which helped firm up his lead in the race so far, will be replicated in the hustings in the weeks ahead. However, that road is unlikely to be a smooth ride as he sets about to woo an estimated 160,000 Conservative Party voters to cast their postal ballots in his favour.