Rishi Sunak, aged 42, becomes the youngest modern U.K. Prime Minister in modern history and the first non-white leader of the country after Liz Truss relinquished her office just 44 days after she took it.
Furthermore, Boris Johnson, who warranted his comeback in his resignation speech and was set to compete for the office left by Truss, eventually dropped out of the race, saying it was not the right time.
The only remaining Sunak’s opponent, ex-Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt, couldn’t secure enough votes in her favor and also dropped out. She emphasized she was proud of her campaign and pledged support to Sunak.
Western and Ukrainian analysts argue that Sunak, being a pragmatic leader, will focus on Britain’s domestic policy. There will still be lasting support for Ukraine, but the problems of the Conservative party are so obvious that it’s difficult to predict if the next Tory government will be able to hold out.
How Rishi Sunak took the office of the U.K. Prime Minister
The FT points out that Rishi Sunak bungee-jumped back to the top of British politics after having been banished from the cabinet chaired by Liz Truss. He was even forced to deny rumors that he would leave the government to work in the U.S.
However, the unfunded tax cuts that the more careful Sunak had warned about wrecked Truss’s career as the head of the Cabinet in a record 44 days.
Sunak is Britain’s first prime minister with an MBA and a past life at Goldman Sachs (2001–2004) as an analyst.
Although a Brexiter and an advocate of low-tax free ports, Sunak is more popular than other Tories among Remain voters.
That has much to do with his role as chancellor during the Covid-19 pandemic when he allocated billions of pounds of subsidies.
"After the chaos of Truss and Boris Johnson, Sunak’s appeal is that he projects competence," political observer Henry Mance explains.
Who Rishi Sunak is: investment and business administration
Rishi Sunak was raised in Southampton. He is the grandson of Indian migrants who arrived from East Africa in the 1960s. His father was a doctor, and his mother ran a pharmacy.
He was head boy at Winchester College, an elite private school, then studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University.
Initially, Rishi Sunak seemed more taken by business than politics. He joined Oxford’s investment society, not its debating union.
He also spent three years at Goldman’s private equity arm, did an MBA at Stanford and then worked as an analyst for hedge funds TCI and Theleme Partners.
Rishi Sunak in politics: a Tory candidate, Brexit, and Johnson
Sunak became engaged in politics later: in 2014, he was selected as the Tory candidate for the safe seat of Richmond, North Yorkshire, with the support of the outgoing MP and former party leader William Hague. Sunak also supported Brexit, to the dismay of David Cameron, who bemoaned:
"If we’ve lost Rishi, we’ve lost the future of the party."
As Mance points out in his article, Sunak did not rebel against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, his pragmatism apparently coming to the fore. He later supported Boris Johnson on his way to leadership and had a break in his political career until 2020, when he was made chancellor.
Sunak is remembered as a minister respected by his colleagues. As was revealed later, he had not taken a holiday during his two years in office.
However, Rishi Sunak’s idealized image was somewhat dispelled, the author notes, as he conceded that his wife avoided paying taxes in the U.K. while he was chancellor and that he had held a U.S. Green Card.
Rishi Sunak was also affected by the scandals surrounding Boris Johnson. He did not resign in protest over Downing Street parties during lockdowns, but instead, he was seen attending the PM's birthday party.
In July, as the scandal around Johnson mounted to its highest point, Sunak resigned, claiming his and the PM’s approaches to fiscal policy were too different.
In the leadership contest that followed, the former chancellor promised Tory members fiscal conservatism and "a grown-up conversation". However, it didn’t impress his fellow party members at that time.
Rishi Sunak as a leader: wealth and Tory’s parallel universe
Rishi Sunak is younger than both Tony Blair and David Cameron when they became prime minister. He is the first PM to have originated from East Africa and to have Indian ancestry.
His Indian grandparents emigrated to Britain from East Africa and he grew up in Southampton, the FT recalls.
But despite having won the backing of Tory MPs as party leader and prime minister, he failed to consolidate the party. Thus, Johnson’s supporters accuse him of having had a hand in the resignation of Truss’s predecessor.
earlier wrote that during the summer campaign, Sunak chose Brocket Hall, one of England’s most luxurious stately homes, to deliver his speech before fellow Conservatives who showed up on Bentleys and Porsches. Because of this lavish display, the Tories were accused of living in a parallel universe to their voters.
During the Q&A session that day, not a single Tory member mentioned the cost of living crisis. Instead, Sunak pledged to take on the "leftie culture" that wants to "cancel women". At the same time, he denied having infringed on the rights of LGBT+ people in the U.K.
As regards the parallel universe, Sunak is far from being poor — apart from a partnership in two hedge funds, he is married to Akshata Murty, daughter of Narayana Murthy, billionaire founder of IT company Infosys. Although his fortune has not been officially disclosed, he’s said to be one of the richest MPs.
What challenges await Rishi Sunak as he becomes the U.K. Prime Minister?
Rishi Sunak now faces serious domestic problems, which Liz Truss didn’t manage to solve (instead, she rather aggravated them):
- a crisis in the public finances;
- high inflation;
- stretched public services;
- industrial unrest and soaring energy bills;
- the possibility of blackouts in 2023.
In his October 22 speech, Sunak, as a fiscal conservative, said:
"There will be integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level of the government I lead."
By far, financial markets have responded positively to his appointment. This response has been dubbed in the City of London "the dullness dividend" following the turmoil unleashed by Truss’s "mini-budget" with unreasonable tax cuts. The pound rose by as much as 0.9% against the dollar.
According to the FT, Sunak is expected to keep Jeremy Hunt, also a fiscal conservative, as chancellor, and thus reassure markets.
Will Sunak support Ukraine in its war against Russia?
As to Rishi Sunak’s expected foreign policy, Ukrainian analysts emphasize that it will primarily depend on who holds the positions of Defense Secretary and Foreign Secretary.
Volodymyr Fesenko, Chairman of the Board of the Penta Center of Applied Political Studies, believes there will be no major changes in Britain’s overall stance on foreign policy.
More news that’s not so good for Ukraine, although still quite good for the U.K., as the political scientist noted, is that Rishi Sunak and his cabinet will be focused on British domestic problems, which are now the top priority for them.
"It will certainly distract them. There will be no dazzling gestures like those we used to see from Boris Johnson. But speaking about gestures, let me give you one example: the total amount of aid to Ukraine from Poland exceeds that from the U.K. Hence, it’s not about gestures," Fesenko emphasized.
What’s wrong with Rishi Sunak’s reputation?
All military programs in support of Ukraine that are now being implemented are maintained, including military and technical assistance to Ukraine, training of the Ukrainian military, and joint actions by the U.K. and the U.S. or the U.K., the U.S., and Poland as concerned Ukraine.
The biggest problem, not for Ukraine but for the U.K., is that now the Conservative Party is going through the biggest crisis since the Second World War, Fesenko added.
He also warned that Rishi Sunak’s reputation isn’t perfect.
"He is a rich man who is accused of various connections with business, and there are hints of corruption. So the question is how long Rishi Sunak's cabinet will hold out. For Ukraine, the main problem is not that the policy will change — there may be tactical or stylistic changes. The main problem is instability. It is not very good when the governments of our main allies change so often," Fesenko stressed.
Rishi Sunak comes to rescue Conservatives
Petro Burkovskyi, Executive Director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, gave his commentaries to on the Tory crisis, saying that those Conservatives who were the driving force behind Brexit have been affected greatly by its consequences.
According to Burkovskyi, the attack on Johnson was primarily related to the decline in the Conservative Party’s popularity due to COVID-19 and falling living standards. The British were promised that Brexit would have a positive effect, but so far this has not happened.
Although Rishi Sunak supported Brexit, he was not at the forefront of it, so he did not receive such serious criticism.
"Rishi Sunak won't advocate for a return to the EU, but he will try to pursue a more moderate policy — in particular regarding Ukraine," says the political scientist.
Burkovskyi believes that Sunak will be colder toward Ukrainian issues and the issue of the war in Ukraine, but the more important thing is whether Ben Wallace remains Defense Secretary and who will hold the post of Foreign Secretary.
"I think that Rishi will try to distance himself from the war and address domestic issues to prepare the party for the 2024 general election. If he doesn't succeed, his cabinet will also resign in 8–10 months. Then, an early election may be held, where Labor by far holds the upper hand," the expert explained.
In general, Sunak has two years to save the party, but a lot will depend on the global situation, in particular, on the war in Ukraine, says Burkovskyi, because the U.K. is heavily invested in the developed markets of the world.
"This is one of the systemic branches of the British economy. If such instability persists and the war continues, it is difficult to imagine what means from within could improve the situation in the country," said Burkovskyi.
Rishi Sunak is a British version of Olaf Scholz
As a politician who has proved to be more mercantile in his career, Rishi Sunak can become a kind of British version of Olaf Scholz, who will agree to help Ukraine but think primarily of the U.K.
Meanwhile, as the head of the cabinet will be absorbed by domestic problems, foreign policy will be farmed out to either the Foreign Secretary or Defense Secretary, whoever has more influence in the party, Burkovskyi noted. In particular, it can be Ben Wallace, which would mean support for Ukraine will remain strong.