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WORLD | 27-10-2022 15:20

Challenges ahead as Rishi Sunak, fifth Tory leader in six years, becomes UK PM

Arrival of 42-year-old in office, youngest PM of modern times, cheers up Conservatives – but Labour senses weakness.

Britain on Wednesday saw the outlines of the next no-holds-barred general election campaign, after multimillionaire Rishi Sunak took office as the third prime minister of the year.

Sunak gave as good as he got from the opposition Labour party at his first session of "Prime Minister's Questions" – delighting his Conservative backbenchers after the turmoil of recent weeks.

First Boris Johnson was forced out, after one scandal too many. Then the MPs voted for Sunak against Liz Truss as leader, only for the party's largely white, wealthy and southern English members to overrule them.

"The only time he ran in a competitive election, he got trounced by the former prime minister, who herself got beaten by a lettuce," Labour leader Keir Starmer mocked Sunak in a febrile House of Commons.

Truss suffered a political demise so rapid that a celebrity lettuce outlasted her in an online stream shown by the Daily Star newspaper.

At her last Prime Minister's Questions a week ago, Truss declared to Starmer that she was "a fighter, and not a quitter." Tory MPs behind her sat in glowering silence. The next day, she quit.

Challenges aplenty await Sunak as he tries to unwind the havoc wrought by Truss during her 49 days in power – the shortest in British history. 

But he has already achieved one signal feat in becoming Britain's first prime minister of colour – a fact acknowledged by Starmer as "part of what makes us all so proud to be British."

 

Dramatic rise to power

Sunak’s installation as the Conservatives' new leader caps a dramatic rise to power for the son of immigrants from Britain's old empire.

"Indian son rises over the empire," read a headline on the Indian news channel NDTV, adding: "History comes full circle in Britain."

At 42, Sunak is the youngest prime minister of modern times. The former hedge fund investor, an observant Hindu, failed in the summer to persuade the Tory grassroots that he was a better option than Truss. But having correctly predicted her economic agenda would spark turmoil, he was able to throw his hat into the ring for a second time.

Wealthy from his previous career in finance, Sunak faces daunting challenges in power, from an economic crisis to uniting his fractious party. 

Some within it remain highly critical of Sunak, viewing him as disloyal for triggering the downfall of Johnson in July.

He has also been mocked as out of touch with Britons struggling with decades-high inflation – perhaps best symbolised by wearing expensive Prada loafers to a construction site visit on the summer campaign trail.

A national election is due by January 2025 at the latest, but could well come sooner if Labour and other opposition parties have their way. 

 

'Dishy Rishi'

A details-oriented policy wonk with a background in economics, Sunak has sought to present himself as a stable choice at a time of crisis.

An early backer of Brexit, he took over as chancellor of the exchequer in February 2020 – a baptism of fire for the Tory rising star as the Covid pandemic erupted. He was forced to craft an enormous economic support package at breakneck speed, which he now insists must be paid off with sound fiscal plans.

In India, Sunak is better known through his wife, Akshata Murty. She is the daughter of Indian tycoon Narayana Murthy, the billionaire co-founder of information technology group Infosys. 

The Sunaks met while studying in California and they have two young daughters, along with a photogenic dog. The ex-minister's Instagram-friendly profile earned him the media nickname of "Dishy Rishi."

Until last year, he held a US Green Card – which critics said suggested a lack of long-term loyalty to Britain.  And he has been dogged by difficult questions over Murty's failure until recently to pay UK taxes on her Infosys returns, which opinion polls suggest was viewed with deep disfavour by voters.

 

Waiter to wealth

Sunak represents the constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire, northern England – a safe and overwhelmingly white Conservative seat he took over in 2015 from former party leader and foreign secretary William Hague, who described him as "exceptional."

Theresa May gave Sunak his first job in government in January 2018, making him a junior minister for local government, parks and troubled families.

Sunak's grandparents were from Punjab in northern India and emigrated to Britain from eastern Africa in the 1960s. They arrived with "very little", Sunak told MPs in his maiden speech.

His father was a family doctor in Southampton on England's south coast, and his mother ran a local pharmacy. Sunak waited tables in a local Indian restaurant, before progressing to Oxford and then Stanford University in California.

He swears his oath of allegiance as an MP on the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. 

He insists his own family's experience, and that of his mega-rich wife's, are a "very Conservative" story of hard work and aspiration. 

 

COP cancellation

Rishi Sunak faced condemnation after his spokesman announced Thursday he will not attend next month's COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt due to "pressing domestic commitments."

Britain hosted the last such summit, COP26, when it stressed the importance of global leaders convening to discuss climate change amid growing criticism of their failure to meet vital carbon reduction targets. 

Sunak's decision came on the same day the United Nations warned that countries' climate pledges leave the world on track to heat by a potentially calamitous 2.6 degrees Celsius (36.7 degrees Fahrenheit) this century.

It also follows his moves to stop allowing the government's COP26 minister Alok Sharma and climate minister Graham Stuart attending cabinet, as they had done under his predecessors.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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