Historic! 42-Year-Old Rishi Sunak To Become UK’s Youngest, First Asian Prime Minister
Just seven short weeks ago, it looked as if it might be all over for Rishi Sunak. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer – the UK’s title for its chief finance minister – made a high-stakes gamble. He launched an attack that helped to end Boris Johnson’s premiership, put himself forward as his replacement, but ultimately lost to Liz Truss. Admitting defeat, he retreated to the parliamentary back benches.
But in a sign of just how unpredictable British politics has become, Sunak returned triumphant from the political wilderness to replace Truss, whose premiership imploded last week.
Sunak was the only leadership hopeful to secure the support of 100 Conservative members of parliament, the necessary threshold set by party officials for potential candidates. He will become the first person of color to lead the UK – and at the age of 42, he is also the youngest person to take the office in more than 200 years.
Sunak first publicly declared on Sunday morning that he would be standing in the contest. He tweeted, “The United Kingdom is a great country but we face a profound economic crisis. That’s why I am standing to be Leader of the Conservative Party and your next Prime Minister. I want to fix our economy, unite our Party and deliver for our country.”
The United Kingdom is a great country but we face a profound economic crisis.
That’s why I am standing to be Leader of the Conservative Party and your next Prime Minister.
I want to fix our economy, unite our Party and deliver for our country. pic.twitter.com/BppG9CytAK
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) October 23, 2022
In the last contest, over the summer, he was widely seen as the more moderate of the two candidates. Compared to Truss, he took a less ideological line on matters like Brexit and the economy. (Unlike Truss, a remainer-turned hardline Brexiteer, Sunak 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 Rwanda immigration policy.
Sunak, 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 southern England, something Sunak says gave him his desire to serve the public.
He will be 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 of the Hindu calendar. Sunak himself made history in 2020 when he lit Diwali candles outside 11 Downing Street, the official residence of the UK chancellor.
He has faced challenges over his elite background, having studied at the exclusive Winchester College, Oxford and Stanford universities. He is known for his expensive taste in fashion and has worked for banks and hedge funds, including Goldman Sachs.
Sunak has also been scrutinized over the tax arrangements of his wife Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire.
Earlier this year, Sunak and Murty appeared on the Sunday Times Rich List of the UK’s 250 wealthiest people – the newspaper estimated their joint net worth at £730 million ($826 million).
Sunak’s election on Monday marks the pinnacle of what has been a speedy rise to power. He was first elected as an MP in 2015 and spent two years on the back benches before becoming a junior minister in Theresa May’s government. Johnson gave Sunak his first major government role, appointing him as chief secretary to the Treasury in 2019 and promoting him to chancellor in 2020.
Sunak has experience of economic crisis-fighting, having guided the UK through the Covid-19 pandemic, and positioned himself as the “sound finance” candidate.
During the pandemic, Sunak put in place measures worth £400 billion ($452 billion) aimed at boosting the economy, including a generous furlough scheme, business loans and discounts on eating in restaurants. But that stimulus came at a huge cost and left the government scrambling to find savings.
Sunak was an early critic of Truss’ economic plan, which was panned by investors, the International Monetary Fund and credit ratings agencies. While he also advocated for lower taxes, he said tax could only be cut once inflation is brought under control, which could take several years.
His warning over the summer that Truss’ unfunded tax cuts could spark panic in the financial markets turned out to be true. The British pound crashed to a record low against the US dollar when Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng unveiled their plan. Prices of UK government bonds rose at the fastest pace ever, sending borrowing costs skyrocketing.
He also secured the most votes from MPs in the last leadership election – comfortably clearing the new threshold with 137 endorsements. Although Truss eventually won the decisive vote among grassroots members, Sunak was not far behind, gaining 43% of the vote.