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Rishi Sunak to be UK's new PM, youngest leader in more than 200 years

Rishi Sunak will also become the UK's first British Asian prime minister.

Rishi Sunak to be UK's new PM, youngest leader in more than 200 years

Rishi Sunak is seen in central London on Oct 23, 2022. (Photo: AFP/Daniel Leal)

LONDON: Rishi Sunak will become Britain's next prime minister after he won the race to lead the Conservative Party on Monday (Oct 24), leaving him with the task of steering a deeply divided country through an economic downturn set to leave millions of people poorer.

Sunak, one of the wealthiest politicians in Westminster, will be Britain's third prime minister in less than two months. The 42-year-old is also the UK's first British Asian prime minister and the youngest in 200 years.

Sunak will be asked to form a government by King Charles, replacing Liz Truss, the outgoing leader who only lasted 44 days in the job before she resigned.

Addressing the public for the first time, Sunak said: "The United Kingdom is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge.

"We now need stability and unity and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together," he said, appearing to rebuff calls from opposition parties for an early general election.

He defeated centrist politician Penny Mordaunt, who failed to get enough backing from lawmakers to enter the ballot, while his rival, the former prime minister Boris Johnson, withdrew from the contest saying he could no longer unite the party.

"This decision is a historic one and shows, once again, the diversity and talent of our party," Mordaunt said in a statement as she withdrew from the race just minutes before the winner was due to be announced. "Rishi has my full support."

He is likely to be appointed prime minister by King Charles on Tuesday.

Elected for the first time to parliament in 2015, it is a remarkable return for Sunak who lost a leadership bid to Truss less than two months ago.

He will also have to work hard to hold Britain's dominant political party together after some accused him of treachery earlier this year when he resigned from Johnson's cabinet, triggering his downfall too.

Britain's Rishi Sunak poses for a photo with members of the 1922 Committee, in the Houses of Parliament, after it was announced he will become the new leader of the Conservative party, in London on Oct 24, 2022. (Photo: AP/Stefan Rousseau)
In this file photo dated May 10, 2022, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak react during the first day of a debate on the Queen's Speech, in the House of Commons, in London. (Photo: AFP/UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

The multi-millionaire former hedge fund boss will be expected to launch deep spending cuts to try to rebuild Britain's fiscal reputation, just as the country slides into a recession, dragged down by the surging cost of energy and food.

His backers say the former finance minister is a safe pair of hands who can restore Britain's credibility with investors who sold the country's bonds and sterling after Truss' mini-budget offered tax cuts with little on how to fund them.

Finance minister Jeremy Hunt - the fourth person in that role in four months - is due to present a budget on Oct 31 to plug a black hole in the public finances that is expected to have ballooned to up to £40 billion.

The former Goldman Sachs analyst also faces challenges within the governing Conservative Party, where some lawmakers blame him for his role in ousting Johnson and are concerned he has not got what it takes to win elections.

The opposition Labour Party is likely to paint him as a member of the uber-rich elite, out of touch with the pressures faced by millions as Britain slides towards a recession, dragged down by the surging cost of food and energy.

Some fear he cannot reunite a party that is deeply divided and getting used to quickly dispensing with leaders they do not like.

"He couldn't beat Liz Truss last month; he's not turned into an election winner less than two months later," one senior Conservative lawmaker said on condition of anonymity after supporting Johnson in his failed bid to run again.

Sunak replaces Truss, who said she would resign four days ago but who defeated him on Sep 5 with 57 per cent of the vote from Conservative members. Then, the former finance minister repeatedly described his predecessor's ideas as "fairytale" economics that would spook the markets.

He was proved right, but after a fast-track leadership race, some Conservatives say they doubt his commitment to a Margaret Thatcher-style small-state vision to spur growth after he put Britain on course for the highest tax burden since the 1950s with emergency pandemic spending on saving jobs and welfare.

When declaring his candidacy, Sunak, said he had a track record that showed he could "fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country".

"There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of the government I lead and I will work day in and day out to get the job done," he said in veiled criticism of Johnson, forced out over a scandal-ridden premiership.

Rishi Sunak rose swiftly up the ranks of the Conservative Party, becoming one of the youngest finance ministers in 2020. (Photo: AFP)

FIRST INDIAN-HERITAGE PM

Born in Southampton in 1980 to Hindu parents of Punjabi Indian descent, Sunak repeatedly during the last leadership campaign spoke of helping his mum, who ran a pharmacy, with the books, doing payroll and accounts.

His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a period when many people from Britain's former colonies moved to the country to help it rebuild after World War II. 

He had a privileged education - he went to an elite fee-paying school and is the latest prime minister to have studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, following David Cameron.

After graduation, he went to Stanford University where he met his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father is Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys.

During the last leadership campaign, he supported the creation of more selective grammar schools after new ones were banned by the opposition Labour Party, but repeatedly said "a world-class education" should be a birthright.

He will also be the first British Asian to become the UK's prime minister. Ravi Kumar, 38, a Conservative Party member working at a finance company in the central English city of Nottingham, described the appointment as a "watershed moment".

"I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and I could not even imagine a non-white prime minister in my lifetime ... So to see a British Indian leader is phenomenal," he told Reuters.

However, Sunak's marriage has raised concerns in the party that he is too far removed from the problems faced by everyday voters, some of whom are being forced by spiralling inflation to decide whether to spend their money on food or heating.

It did not help that in April, Sunak's wife was forced to confirm reports that her non-domiciled status meant she did not pay tax on all her international earnings, something she agreed to end.

"Rishi never had an overdraft so he is used to having a Treasury (finance ministry) account and a current account," said one Conservative insider who had backed Johnson.

"Rishi has good PR but an inability to be brave and be the Brexit Chancellor the UK needs," the insider said on condition of anonymity.

In this file photo taken on Feb 9, 2022, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak poses with his wife Akshata Murthy for pictures during a reception to celebrate the British Asian Trust at The British Museum in London. (Photo: AFP/Tristan Fewings)
Rishi Sunak replaces Liz Truss, the outgoing leader who only lasted 44 days in the job before she resigned. (Photo: AFP/Paul Faith)

Sunak's supporters say he is just the man who is needed to steady the ship financially after Truss' so-called mini-budget roiled financial markets, raising government borrowing and increasing mortgages and fears pensions funds could go bust.

"We need someone who can provide stability and proven economic competence in these challenging times, and Rishi Sunak is that person," said Grant Shapps, brought in as Britain's interior minister after Truss sacked his predecessor.

Shapps was just one of several ministers to back Sunak after Johnson pulled out late on Sunday, surprising and even angering his own supporters. Johnson has not made public who he backed.

COVID-19 CHAMPION

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Britain, Sunak dropped the Conservatives' small-state instincts to borrow massively and stave off the risk of an economic depression.

That made him one of the most popular politicians in the country, as he was praised for helping businesses and workers.

In one photograph that captured the sense of unity behind his rescue plans, Sunak posed outside his Downing Street office flanked by the heads of Britain's biggest trade union group and a leading employers' group.

But that consensus disappeared as Britain emerged from the crisis saddled with an extra £400 billion of debt and then fell into a cost-of-living crisis that led to even more demands on the public purse.

Polls earlier this year showed his stock had fallen with the public, who were worried about the cost of living crisis and angered that he had raised payroll taxes while his wife had avoided British levies.

Labour leader Keir Starmer is expected to seize on the appointment of a new wealthy prime minister by Conservative lawmakers rather than by the country as a reason why Britain should face a national election before it is due in two years.

"My focus is on the millions of people who are struggling to pay their bills, now have additional anxieties about their mortgage. I know what it feels like," Starmer said on Sunday.

"They could have a stable Labour government."

Source: Agencies/zl

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