On October 26, Rishi Sunak took over as Prime Minister of the UK, and leader of the Conservative Party. As the first person of colour to hold the post of PM, and the youngest in over 200 years, his rise to the top is noteworthy. It comes on the back of a rocky period of unprecedented tumult in UK politics, as the island nation is reeling from the death of its longest-serving monarch, and the 45-day long Prime Ministership of Liz Truss.
Rishi Sunak inherits a staggering economy and a shell-shocked and divided party, and he now faces the huge task of stabilising both party and country in a time of economic and political turbulence.
Born in 1980 in Southampton to parents of Punjabi descent, Rishi Sunak’s rise to the top of British politics has been lightning quick. He became MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire in 2015 and joined Boris Johnson’s Cabinet in 2019, as chief treasury to the secretary, working with chancellor Sajid Javid. In 2020, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Britain’s equivalent of a Finance Minister, and was plunged into pandemic crisis planning and budgeting.
For many, Sunak’s performance as chancellor during the pandemic was steady and reassuring, and his personal poll ratings shot up as he unveiled support worth £350 billion.
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In July this year, Sunak resigned from his post, citing incompatibility with the economic policies of Boris Johnson. His resignation, among others, was crucial in ousting Johnson as PM. A few months later, Sunak has ascended to the post himself.
To many, Sunak’s rise to the top as a British Indian person, and a practising Hindu, celebrates the diversity of modern-day Britain. However, others are not as exuberant, pointing to his massive personal wealth, and upper-class upbringing, as major benefactors in his journey.
Rishi Sunak was educated at Winchester College, an exclusive private school, after which he went on to attend Oxford and Stanford Universities. Before entering politics, Sunak worked for the investment bank Goldman Sachs, and then worked for two multibillion dollar hedge funds.
Sunak is married to Akshata Murthy, daughter of billionaire Infosys co-founder Narayan Murthy. Together, he and his wife have an estimated worth of more than £700m, a sum which eclipses the personal wealth of the monarch of the UK, King Charles III.
In April, their finances came under intense scrutiny as reports emerged that Akshata Murty potentially avoided paying up to £20m in UK taxes, by declaring non-domicile status. She owns 0.9% of Infosys, which declared a £11.6bn profit in 2021. After the scandal broke out, she announced that she would start paying UK tax on this income.
The reaction to Sunak’s appointment in India has been varied. While many are ecstatic at the prospect of an Indian-origin leader of the UK, others have pointed out that Sunak is a British citizen whose parents, although of Indian descent, hail from Africa.
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One of the Sunak government’s first priorities in the diplomatic arena will be ongoing talks over a free-trade agreement with India, initiated by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The two countries began negotiations in January, with eyes at a Diwali deadline, which has been missed. The deal is reportedly in advanced stages, with the majority of sections completed, but has been held back in part by the ever-changing political landscape of the UK.
It was also not helped by remarks made by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who said that Indians are the largest visa overstayers in the UK. Along with reducing or eliminating tariffs, India is also reportedly looking for easier movement of skilled workers in the deal.
A few days after she made the comments, Braverman was forced to resign over a security breach, as she sent an official document from a personal email ID, a move that furthered the instability of the doomed Liz Truss government.
In his new cabinet, Sunak has re-appointed Braverman as Home Secretary, a move which has been widely criticised in the UK as well as India. Many party colleagues have expressed concerns about the appointment, believing it undermines Sunak’s promise to restore integrity and professionalism to the government.
The task before Rishi Sunak is enormous. In his first speech as Prime Minister, he called for unity with his words. His actions will chart the path of the United Kingdom in days to come.