New leader Sunak is a safe pair of hands but few British premiers have faced challenges as grave and wide as those before him
By ANDREW SALMON
The empire has struck back with a vengeance, as Anglo-Indian Rishi Sunak takes the United Kingdom’s national helm as its first-ever non-Caucasian prime minister.
In a country that has had a sometimes vexed relationship with multi-culturalism, it speaks much of the millennial UK’s embrace of its ethnic minorities that Sunak has become prime minister.
It also says something about the mores of the ruling Conservative Party. The Tories have not only emplaced three female prime ministers – the opposition, the supposedly more liberal Labor Party has emplaced none – they have now placed a man of color and a Hindu in the national driver’s seat.
But if Sunak, 42, is a poster boy for overcoming racial barriers, he is also representative of the UK’s other social bugbear: classism.
As one of the UK’s 250 wealthiest people, the Oxford graduate and ex-Goldman Sachs banker is certainly a member of the elite, raising allegations that he is out of touch with the lives of the average Nigel and Ella.
Professionally, he is – unlike his hapless predecessor, Liz Truss – economically lettered. He brings significant professional chops to the position, having, as chancellor of the exchequer, navigated Britain’s economy through the Covid crisis.
Likewise, it is clear with hindsight that his withering critiques of Truss’ economic strategies during their debates were bang on the button. But political storms lie ahead.
The opposition Labor Party is howling for a general election. After the Conservative’s rank-and-file members made the disastrous choice of Truss, the party’s MPs’ attempt to restore equilibrium by choosing Sunak is a tough sell.
Though under the UK’s electoral system voters select a party rather than a personality, Sunak is the second premier in less than two months to be chosen by the party, not the general public. That is a vulnerability that both the opposition and the left-wing press have seized upon.
Yet the leadership crisis he will hopefully extinguish is only one of several national fires burning across the UK.
While Sunak looks well equipped to grip the economic nettle, his grasp on the UK’s political, foreign affairs and even constitutional portfolios is less certain. And all are bubbling with crises of their own.
Today, Sunak is set to be received by King Charles to confirm his status as the country’s third prime minister this year. In a speech yesterday, Sunak put his finger on the key tasks ahead. Speaking of the “profound economic challenge” the UK faces, he pledged to deliver “stability and unity.”
Time is not on his side, however. Sunak’s handling of those challenges will be judged in a general election which must be called within two years, not the four years British PMs customarily enjoy in 10 Downing Street.
Brits of Anglo-Asian and Anglo-Caribbean ethnicity have, in recent years, won significant profiles in politics, the media, sport and other areas of British life. Meanwhile, the UK’s parliament is refreshingly clear of the kind of far-right and out-and-out racist parties that tar other polities.
But all is not rosy in the UK. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and old-fashioned racism are alive and well among different segments of British society. And a strident counterbalance to millennial tolerance is the defensive jingoism that animated Brexit. That has, itself, magnified nationalist tendencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Sunak is a child of empire. His grandparents hailed from the Punjab and migrated to East Africa to work in the colonial bureaucracy. Subsequently, many thousands of ethnic Indians found themselves as unwelcome guests after African nations won independence.
Sunak’s parents were first-generation migrants who set up shop in Southampton, a port city in England’s south. Both were, almost stereotypically, healthcare professionals. Like many immigrants, they labored hard and their son, also stereotypically, once supported himself by waiting tables in a curry restaurant. (Indian cuisine that has, itself, changed British dining habits for the better).
By dint of hard work, the Sunaks were able to get Rishi into the elite and expensive Winchester School. From there, his trajectory was unstoppable.
He won a place at Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics – a mixed-fruit pudding degree offering multiple morsels for any wannabe politician.
He followed that with an MBA at top-tier Stanford in the United States. Given that ex-premier Boris Johnson, during his parliamentary farewell, advised subsequent leaders to “stay close to the Americans” Sunak’s US experience looks well-synched with Conservative sentiments.
His next stop was the UK’s top economic hotspot, the City of London, where Sunak worked in investment banks and hedge funds. And in another route to riches, he wedded Akshata Murty, a billionaire’s daughter.
Then it was politics, a route that led him to his current destination. Like Barack Obama – America’s first leader of color, to whom he is inevitably compared – Sunak presents well. He is slim, good looking and perfectly suited and booted.
He also has a flair for publicity, such as when he appeared at a restaurant serving meals to surprised diners to boost his Covid-era restaurant support package. A confident public speaker, it is unclear how well he will manage the bloody cut-and-thrust of prime minister’s question time in parliament.
Sunak the pol
In a sensible world, Sunak should have won the premiership after the party’s membership unwisely chose Truss in an intra-party leadership race precipitated by Johnson’s plummet from grace. True-blue Conservatives evidently preferred the radical and economically unlettered Truss over the prudent and economically experienced Sunak.
The result was a disaster. Truss pushed a high-spend, low-tax, deregulatory “growth at all costs” mini-budget – a strategy Sunak had specifically warned against during debates. The markets did not trust Truss’ math. International confidence in the UK’s currency and pension funds imploded, leaving it to the Bank of England to step in to save the economy.
Truss tried to cling on, but in that – as with her economic strategy – she was woefully out of touch. With the Conservatives’ ratings following the economy down the tubes, she had to go. For the second time in as many months, the party ousted a PM and a vastly accelerated leadership race – just one week – was on.
Sunak was the only real choice. The possibility of the disgraced and discarded Johnson returning from the grave was preposterous. The other contender, Penny Mordaunt, was tarnished by her closeness to Truss and her lack of economic expertise.
Prior to the premiership, Sunak’s top job had been chancellor of the exchequer under Johnson. In that role, he displayed competence in both crisis management and economic stewardship, as his tenure at Number 11 Downing Street coincided with Covid-19.
With Johnson’s early-phase mismanagement of the pandemic making the UK one of the deadliest countries in the developed world, Sunak minimized the economic damage. Business support and job furlough packages kept companies and workers afloat, while a subsidized dining-out program kept the restaurant industry alive.
After containment disasters, the UK led the developed world in vaccinations. That dragged the country out of the pandemic – London sensibly ignored Omicron panic elsewhere – ahead of the competition and placed the UK in a sweet economic spot.
In 2021, Sunak – mindful of how Covid had wrecked the national finances – pivoted to prudence with a series of measures that included raising corporate taxes.
But political turmoil followed the Covid exit as Johnson was dragged under in a web of lies about his personal party-going during Covid lockdowns. It was Sunak’s well-timed resignation that made clear Johnson was finished. That precipitated the Conservative’s leadership struggles.
Economically, the UK Sunak inherits from Johnson and Truss is less a poisoned chalice and more a poisoned barrel.
By some metrics, the UK is already in recession with a massive hole gaping in its public finances.
Soaring inflation is hitting the public and the Bank of England looks compelled to raise borrowing rates to keep pace with the US Federal Reserve. Higher energy costs are starting to hit households as the cold season bites. Meanwhile, there is nationwide industrial unrest, including in mail and transport.
Politically, things are equally grim. With Covid gone, the carnage caused by the slow-moving train wreck of Brexit is now in clearer view. Sunak was a pro-Brexiteer – albeit, not a rabid one – but is going to struggle to find any positives.
With trade with Europe drowned in a sea of paperwork, small, entrepreneurial businesses with global ambitions – one of the most promising sectors of the UK economy – are in big trouble.
For reasons of both market size and geographical proximity, the EU is the plain-bloody-obvious first stop for expansion beyond Britain. But non-tariff bureaucratic barriers are forcing such businesses to establish distribution centers on EU soil, robbing the UK of investment and talent.
Relations between Brussels and London are also tense over the border status of Northern Ireland. London signed a deal on that with the EU under Johnson, who – as hindsight makes clear – had no intention of honoring it. What Sunak can do to finesse that dishonorable ploy is anyone’s guess.
That points to a wider constitutional crisis. In the wake of Brexit – which Scotland did not support – there have been ever-louder calls from Edinburgh for a second independence referendum. This puts the future of the United Kingdom itself at stake.
On foreign policy, an economically-constrained Sunak will struggle to continue Johnson’s generous arms and aid to Kiev, which could be grim news for Ukraine’s defenders.
The war’s fate may well be decided in the winter campaign season as both sides deploy massed new forces to the killing grounds. But with Republicans in the US, as well as Kiev’s champion in the UK likely to slow weapons shipments, Ukraine’s troops may advance into battle with under-filled armories.
Like many fellow Conservatives, Sunak is suspicious of China. He considers it “the biggest threat” to the UK and has called for the shutdown of Confucius Institutes in Britain. Whether he will prosecute policies against the world’s No 2 economy now that he is prime minister of a wobbly UK remains to be seen.
Still, in one area, he has an advantage. With post-Brexit Britain pursuing trade agreements with India, his father-in-law is Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys, one of that country’s leading information technology companies.
Indian media have been all a goggle at the rise of a Hindu to the top of UK politics. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him “a ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership.”
Liz Truss has left a colossal mess behind her for Sunak to clear up. Image: Facebook
Sunak the unlucky
Unlike prime ministers who win a general election and can bank on four years to deliver their agenda, Sunak faces a political clock ticking at twice the normal speed. He must call a general election by, at the very latest, January 2025.
In the meantime, he is compressed between a rock and a hard place.
The economically prudent policies he is likely to push may win him the trust of the markets. However, tax rises, spending cuts and austerity could very well lose him the affection of the electorate.
That dynamic would play into the eager hands of Labor, for whom Truss’ abysmal premiership was a gift from the gods, overturning the comfortable majority Johnson had won in the last general election.
And Labor has learned from its mistakes. After its party rank and file elected hard-leftist Jeremy Corbyn – anathema to middle-class Britons – it has done the politically sensible thing and put Keir Starmer into place. The former barrister is no Trotskyist, meaning Labor boasts a leader who could, feasibly, win the confidence of Middle England.
For now, though – with Britain still close to the economic brink, with its status as a unified kingdom under fire, and with its continued place as a middle power in the world uncertain – it’s “game on” for Sunak on myriad volatile fronts.