Photo: Rishi Sunak leaving number 10 for htis first PMQsBritain's first non-white Prime Minister26th October: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street, to attend his first PMQs as Prime Minister.[photo: Alamy]

First non-white PM as old colony’s offspring produce new UK leaders

[The full version of this article can be found on John Elliot’s Riding The Elephant website.]

“Let’s see what an intelligent, young, multi-cultural, economics-fluent leader can do for us,” a contact in his 40s told me when it was clear that Rishi Sunak, 42, would become Britain’s third prime minister this year, the youngest for decades, and the first non-white occupant of 10 Downing Street. Of Indian descent from a Punjabi family that emigrated first to Kenya and then the UK, Sunak is also the first Hindu prime minister – and the first to have worked for Goldman Sachs and have an MBA.

The news that he had won was officially announced on 24 October just as India began Diwali celebrations with coloured lights being lighted and firecrackers noisily set off across the country. As happened when Kamala Harris became America’s vice president, Sunak’s rise was seen as proof of India’s growing importance internationally. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, tweeted “Warmest congratulations @RishiSunak!” and looked forward to strengthening India-UK relations.

John Elliott discusses the new UK prime minister with Indian news platform The Print:

Sunak has a massive list of urgent issues to tackle and has pledged that “there will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of the government I lead”. Standing in Downing Street after visiting Buckingham Palace and being invited by King Charles to form a government, he warned of “difficult decisions to come” on the economy and ambitiously said “I will unite our country not with words but with action”.

Financial and economic problems include a fiscal gap of some £40bn, an approaching recession and a cost of living crisis with inflation around 10%, the highest for 40 years. That stems from Brexit and the Ukraine war’s rising energy costs, escalated by the right-wing economic agenda of Liz Truss, the outgoing crisis-ridden prime minister. The National Health Service is failing to cope with demand and the public sector is facing shortages and a spate of wage-related strikes led by railway workers that could escalate into a confrontation between the government and trade unions.

Foreign policy issues include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where former prime minister Boris Johnson and Truss (as foreign secretary) led one of the toughest international responses, plus confrontations with China. Unresolved Brexit problems include pending legislation challenging trade barriers that threaten stability in Northern Ireland, and there is also the looming question of Scotland’s independence.

Sunak needs to learn how to get the government machine to deliver on policies, and he also needs to learn how to project himself and his family. As prime minister, he has to overcome the negative publicity burden of the wealth and privileges that he has enjoyed for years. He and his fashion designer wife Akshata are worth some £730m, thanks mostly to the wealth of her father, Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys, one of India’s three leading IT companies.

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His right-wing credentials are also not as firm as some on the right would like. This prompted a slanted Daily Telegraph headline that described him rather unfairly as “A man riddled with contradictions trying to shed his ‘slippery’ image” on issues such as Brexit and state intervention in the economy.

On policy, Sunak is strong on the economy and financial markets because of his professional background and his experience as chancellor under Johnson. He is continuing with the abandonment of Truss’s policies that was started by Jeremy Hunt, who became chancellor two weeks ago and is staying on in the job. Sunak believes in low taxes and has said he would reduce the bottom rate of income tax from 20% to 16%, but only when prudent without fuelling inflation, perhaps in seven years’ time.

But he has absolutely no experience on foreign policy, international relations or national security, nor on vast swathes of domestic policy ranging from the National Health Service and home care, to the police and transport. In public debates during his contest with Truss however, he appeared as a fast-learning and efficient policy manager who was prepared to devise positive answers to problems without resorting to Truss-style populist tax cuts.

The hope now must be that he did not have to make too many promises to his cabinet ministers in order to obtain their support for him to become prime minister – notably Suella Braverman, an extreme and controversially outspoken right-winger who backed him and was rewarded by regaining her post as home minister. She had been sacked by Truss a week earlier for leaking confidential government policy papers, and Sunak is under continued attack from various quarters for re-appointing her.

He could face problems with the Conservative Party’s right wing led by Braverman that will want tough action on immigration, trade union strikes and law and order, though new labour legislation could escalate unrest and upset economic recovery. There could also be an immigration clash over a pending India-UK trade deal, where Braverman has opposed easing access to the UK for Indian students and key workers.

On climate change, Sunak is likely to follow the trend set by Johnson with a pledge to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, a target Truss might have weakened. He has also said he would make the UK energy-independent by 2045 with increased power from offshore wind, rooftop solar and nuclear sources and improved home insulation. But, showing questionable political judgement, Downing Street briefings indicate that he will not attend the Cop27 summit in Egypt in November and that he will continue Truss’s blockage on King Charles, an ardent climate change campaigner, doing so.

Britain’s recently frenetic politics have calmed down since Sunak took over. His most pressing problem is to unite the Conservative Party, which has been riven by personal rivalries and policy differences. That is essential if it is to have any chance of winning the next general election due in 2024. There will be calls from opposition parties for an immediate general election, but Sunak can ignore them if he can hold the party together to tackle what he described in his 84-second victory statement as “a profound economic challenge”.

John Elliott is a member of the Round Table editorial board.

Related articles:
How Crucial a Factor Was Race in Rishi Sunak’s Rise? – The Wire India
Rishi’s Kenyan roots – The Nation Africa
Rishi Sunak is helping Britain eclipse its colonial past around the world – London Evening Standard