King Charles III welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, where he invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party to become prime minister and form a new government, October 25, 2022 (Photo: AP)
MUCH OF THE COMMENTARY ON Rishi Sunak’s ascent to the peak of British power has focused on his Indian ancestry. And in a way that is understandable. The 42-year-old scion of globetrotting Punjabis is Britain’s first non-white prime minister. He is also its first Hindu one (a point underlined by his elevation to the role on the holiest day of Diwali). Few OECD countries have achieved such diversity. Joe Biden, a pretty caustic critic of Britain for an American president, called it a “global milestone”.
In British political circles, the matchup between Sunak’s political and skin complexion is additionally notable. As the party of Enoch Powell and Brexit, the Conservatives have long been associated with Britain’s nativist fringe. Yet, even before Sunak’s rise, they had a far stronger record of promoting non-white talent than their main rival, the Labour Party, for whom most non-white Britons vote. The Tories have appointed three non-white chancellors of the exchequer—including, from 2019 until earlier this year, Sunak himself—three non-white home secretaries and, in James Cleverly, the incumbent, a non-white foreign secretary.
In India, that Sunak’s grandfathers Ramdas Sunak and Raghubir Sain Berry departed for East Africa, before making their respective ways to Britain in the 1960s, Sunak’s ethnicity may well be the most striking thing about him. And it is more than skin deep. The new prime minister is enthusiastic about the elements of Indian identity and culture he retains. He identifies as British Indian, swore his oath of office as chancellor on the Bhagavad Gita, set out Diwali lights in Downing Street, speaks rudimentary Hindi and Punjabi, and has hazy childhood memories of playing cricket in a Delhi park. He is also married to Indian business royalty, in the form of Akshata Murty, NR Narayana Murthy’s daughter. And the fact that Britain spent two centuries lording it over the country of Sunak’s grandfathers’ birth must make his ascent especially satisfying to many Indians. Yet, in truth, his ethnicity is one of the least remarkable things about Sunak.
Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House was so inspiring to African Americans (and enraging to many white ones) because it was so unlikely. America was, and tragically remains, deeply racially divided, as the white nationalist blowback to the first Black president, in the grotesque form of Donald Trump, illustrates. Britain is a different case. It is by no means the last word in racial harmony. Yet, as the upper echelons of recent Tory governments attest, it has moved quite a long way in that direction.
British Indians, by and large, do not seem as inspired by Sunak’s achievement as Biden appears to be. There are too many British Asian stars of business, politics, academia, and sport for them to view him as a trailblazer. Only one of the occupants of Britain’s four great offices of state (prime minister, chancellor, home, and foreign secretaries) is currently white. Public polling meanwhile suggests a country largely at ease with such diversity. In retrospect, the mass hostility towards immigration that helped mobilise popular sentiment against the European Union, leading to the Brexit vote, was driven much less by racism than a fear of being out of control. Assured, since Brexit, that the country had regained control of its borders, most Britons stopped worrying about the issue—even as the volume of immigration from South Asia and West Africa has remained high.
Plucked from obscurity by Johnson, whose bid for the premiership Sunak had supported, he was one of the least-known and politically unproven occupants of 11 Downing Street ever. Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic gave him an early opportunity to put that right
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IN MODERN BRITAIN, RACE TENDS TO BE MERELY one of the multiple overlapping identities. And this is especially true of Sunak. A son of hardworking immigrants—his father is a doctor, his mother a pharmacist—he is in some ways the archetypal migrant success story. He claims to have learned basic accounting by helping his mother in her shop. Yet, he is also so unusually privileged, wealthy, and well-heeled that he must appear to most British Asian less like a kindred battler than a card-carrying member of the cosmopolitan elite. Sunak is a product of Winchester, Oxford, and Stanford (where he met Akshata Murty). He amassed a decent fortune of his own (working at Goldman Sachs and a couple of hedge funds) even before he married into an immense one. Sunak’s and Murty’s estimated £730m fortune makes him, alongside his other firsts, the first prime minister to be richer than the British monarch. He has lavish homes in London and California, in addition to a country pile in his Yorkshire constituency. He hung on to his green card long after he was appointed chancellor by Boris Johnson—in the act, right until the British press discovered and harangued him for it.
Sunak reveals several such contradictions. For example, for all his globalist credentials, his meteoric rise—to become the youngest prime minister in 200 years—owes mainly to the inward-looking, nationalistic Brexit movement, which he zealously supported. This gave him impeccable credentials on the Tory right during the three years of bitter intra-party civil war that followed the shocking result of the Brexit referendum. It ended or blighted the careers of many of the party’s brightest talents, creating a vacuum for the ambitious Sunak to fill. Having been first elected in 2015, he became chancellor within five years.
Thus, plucked from obscurity by Boris Johnson, whose bid for the premiership Sunak had supported, he was one of the least-known and politically unproven occupants of 11 Downing Street ever. Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic gave him an early opportunity to put that right. As the economy went into a pandemic-induced shutdown, Sunak emerged as the architect of a massive Covid safety net, with support for businesses and individuals estimated to cost around $370 billion. Compared to the chaotic Johnson, who vacillated in public over the need for a Covid lockdown, often contradicting the government’s own public health guidance, his young chancellor seemed purposeful, well-briefed, and assured. His public statements inspired confidence. And though his reputation took a knock over the green card scandal (and a related one over his wife’s tax affairs, after it was revealed that she was not paying British tax on her global income), the focus on Johnson’s more numerous and seamy scandals mitigated the damage.
Sunak accentuated that contrast in July when, as Johnson’s lies, laziness and terminal lack of seriousness bred scandal on scandal, he resigned in protest. “The public rightly expects the government to be conducted properly, competently, and seriously,” Sunak scolded his former patron in his resignation letter. “I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for.” This precipitated an avalanche of other ministerial resignations, and in due course, Johnson’s (very reluctant) resignation.
Through a combination of lucky timing, the utter shambles of his Tory peers, and his undoubted competence, he has risen to the pinnacle of British politics seven years after he first entered it. He has done so despite not being obviously charismatic (though handsome and articulate, he has rather a reedy voice) or cut out for political greatness
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Sunak was the overwhelming choice of Tory MPs to replace him. In campaigning to do so, he warned that the programme of unfunded tax cuts being touted by his main rival, Liz Truss, would risk exacerbating inflation and spooking the markets. Yet, the party’s 170,000 members—an aged and rather peculiar group wholly unrepresentative of the country at large—plumped for Truss. Fast-forward six weeks and Sunak, utterly vindicated by Truss’ disastrous market-spooking premiership and forced resignation on October 20, was his Tory colleagues’ even more overwhelming choice for prime minister. And this time the Tory party leadership left nothing to chance. A change to the party’s rules ensured that any leadership contender must have the support of 100 Tory MPs by 2PM on October 23 in order to make it through a final ballot of the party’s members. Sunak duly emerged—as the party bosses clearly hoped he would—as the only eligible candidate. Not even Johnson, who retains considerable support on the Tory right, could muster the necessary 100 votes to challenge him (though, characteristically, he claimed to have them in the bag right up to the moment he announced his humiliating withdrawal from the contest.)
SUNAK’S IS A TRULY ASTONISHING POLITICAL story. Through a combination of lucky timing, the utter shambles of his Tory peers, and his undoubted competence, he has risen to the pinnacle of British politics seven years after he first entered it. He has done so despite not being obviously charismatic (though handsome and articulate, he has rather a reedy voice) or cut out for political greatness. At Winchester and Oxford, he was a high-flyer but not top of his class. And in the latter institution, where Sunak took no interest in student politics, his political ambitions were taken with a pinch of salt. “His fellow students certainly said, slightly light-heartedly, that he wanted to become Conservative prime minister. But I don’t think anyone took that too seriously—it was more of a joke,” his former Oxford tutor, Michael Rosen, once said.
Sunak’s achievement, it must be added, is also despite his having been proved disastrously wrong on the single biggest issue of his career: Brexit. Politically, he has clearly profited from it. Yet, he did not back Brexit only for tactical reasons. He had been a diehard Brexiteer since his schooldays. Writing for his school magazine, The Wykehamist, after Tony Blair’s New Labour won the 1997 general election, he opined that the new prime minister “has plans for the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and membership of an eventual European Superstate.” It was childish tosh—but no more so than Sunak’s pre-referendum argument, two decades later, for erecting trade barriers between Britain and its biggest trade partner. He argued that Brexit would free Britain to become more economically dynamic, including by allowing it to strike trade agreements with India and other fast-growing Asian countries. If only he had reality-checked that in Delhi first. When Sunak was making that argument, ahead of the referendum, the British economy was 90 per cent the size of the German economy. Six years on, ravaged by a Brexit-induced hit to trade and investment, it is less than 70 per cent the size. And in October, yet another deadline for a long-promised UK-India trade deal quietly slipped by.
Sunak’s support for Brexit raises a nagging doubt about his judgement. Not even his hapless Tory predecessors are quite as vulnerable on this point as he is. Of the four post-referendum Tory prime ministers, two, Theresa May and Liz Truss, voted to stay in the European Union. A third, Johnson, also voted to leave, but, being shamefully opportunistic, he probably did so out of personal ambition. Sunak alone appears to have voted for Brexit out of an ideological, economic reality-defying conviction that it was in the country’s best interests.
The New Prime Minister is enthusiastic about the elements of Indian identity and culture he retains. He identifies as British Indian, swore his oath of office as chancellor on the Bhagavad Gita, set out Diwali lights in Downing Street, speaks rudimentary Hindi And Punjabi, and has hazy childhood memories of playing Cricket in a Delhi park
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He has since proved to be more pragmatic. He is an avowed fiscal and small-state Conservative who, in his pandemic response, was responsible for a historic but necessary hike in government borrowing and spending. In fact, even before Covid-19 struck, he was a decent fire-fighting chancellor. Yet, it is debatable how much credit he deserves for managing the negative fallout of an economic calamity, in the form of Brexit, that he himself helped bring about.
HISTORY MUST MAKE A JUDGEMENT ON THAT. In the meantime, he will need every ounce of pragmatism he possesses to manage Britain’s ongoing malaise, which Truss has made even worse. The economy was heading inexorably into recession even before her wild promises of unfunded tax cuts made its currency and bonds toxic to investors. Sunak’s elevation has reassured them a bit: the markets view him as a serious person, unlike Truss and her even shorter-lived chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. And Sunak has already taken steps to justify that judgement. Where Truss and Johnson both appointed cabinets of loyalists, he has taken pains to unite the feuding Tory tribe. He has retained several arch supporters of Johnson, including Ben Wallace, the deference secretary, and also Kwarteng’s successor, Jeremy Hunt, a Remainer, as chancellor. But much bigger challenges are in store.
Britain is now in recession, has an inflation rate of over 13 per cent, and, as the cost of living therefore bites millions around the country, Hunt is believed to be looking to make $40 billion of spending cuts to further settle the bond market. He has no good options. Over a decade of Tory misrule has left Britain’s public services almost as squeezed as the public finances. Yet, the government has no choice but to make cuts; how it does so will reveal more about Sunak.
The wisest approach would start by restraining spending on government pensions and would be extremely hard politically, given that pensioners are the Tory base. Yet, the obvious easier course, which would involve steep cuts to public investment in education and infrastructure, would be a further hit to Britain’s long-term growth prospects. There is little doubt Sunak would prefer the first course; it will be interesting to see whether he has the conviction and political strength to take it.
Unenviable as his governing hand is, he does at least have one useful advantage. His country and party are in such deep holes that no one is expecting very much of him. The recession is expected to last deep into 2023. And the Tories’ ratings are already rock bottom. Under Truss, Labour opened up a 30 percentage-point lead on them. If Sunak can restore an aura of competence to the government and lead his party to a non-catastrophic defeat at the next election, due by January 2025, he will have done pretty well. Anything much more than that would be astonishing.
James Astill is The Economist’s Asia editor, based in London. He was previously its Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist. He is the author of The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India. He is a contributor to Open
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