The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who is Rishi Sunak? What to know about the new U.K. prime minister.

Britain's former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, seen on Oct. 5, is set to become its next prime minister. (Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — Rishi Sunak’s campaign had a simple slogan when he ran for prime minister of Britain earlier this year: “Ready for Rishi.”

The answer was: No, sorry.

He competed against Liz Truss to lead Britain’s Conservative Party after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his scandal-induced resignation in July.

With Truss out, it appears Britain’s Conservatives are indeed ready for Sunak — or at least any chance of a reprieve from the chaos at 10 Downing Street.

Rishi Sunak, a former banker, and his wife, Indian tech heiress Akshata Murty, have an estimated fortune of about $827 million, according to the Sunday Times. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sunak won the Conservative Party’s leadership contest Monday, making him the country’s third leader in less than two months and Britain’s first prime minister of South Asian descent.

The 42-year-old former finance minister is one of Britain’s wealthiest politicians. He was born in Southampton, England, to parents of Indian origin who had emigrated from East Africa.

Educated at one of Britain’s most prestigious private schools, as was his former boss Boris Johnson, he has a glittering résumé, with degrees from the University of Oxford and Stanford University and a stint at the Goldman Sachs investment bank. Sunak is married to the Indian tech heiress Akshata Murty, whose tax affairs caused the former finance minister some political discomfort during his leadership campaign in the summer.

A video clip from a 2007 BBC documentary, in which Sunak suggests he doesn’t have any “working-class friends,” is recirculating online as some Britons frown upon the array of upper-class Conservative contenders.

Nonetheless, he remains popular among politicians of his own party, although he fares less well among the Conservative Party’s national membership, who favored Truss in September by 57.4 percent to 42.6 percent.

Rishi Sunak, the U.K.'s newest prime minister said on Oct. 24 that Britain faces serious economic challenges and needs stability and unity. (Video: Reuters)

After George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter movement swept much of the world in 2020, Sunak spoke out about the racism he has faced in public life and about the struggles his family overcame as immigrants to Britain. He also has publicly championed his Hindu faith, swearing on a revered Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, when he took office.

To his supporters, Sunak is a steady hand on the economic tiller, as he correctly predicted the market crisis sparked by Truss’s policies when she slashed taxes and sent the British pound plummeting. He called Truss’s proposed economic reforms “fairy tale” economics before she took office, an assessment that is likely to lend credence to his image of fiscal responsibility.

A blot on his record, however, is his link to the “Partygate” scandal that toppled Johnson’s government. Like his boss, Sunak was fined by police while in office for attending parties at 10 Downing Street as Britons were under severe government-imposed coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Sunak’s strongest challenger at first appeared to be former prime minister Boris Johnson, whose forced resignation kicked off Britain’s current bout of political chaos. Johnson flew back Saturday from a vacation in the Dominican Republic to a mixed reception as he sought support for a comeback.

But supporters of Sunak, the favorite of bookmakers, insisted that he could easily cross the threshold to secure the backing of 100 Conservative politicians needed to win the first round of the party’s internal leadership race.

“It is abundantly clear that Rishi Sunak has what it takes to match the challenges we face — he is the right person to lead our Party,” former cabinet minister Sajid Javid said Friday in his announcement of support.

“He has the talent, integrity, and humility necessary to provide us with a fresh start and a steady hand,” Conservative lawmaker Gavin Williamson tweeted, as others hailed Sunak’s “competence” and “economic foresight.”

Why Liz Truss resigned as U.K. prime minister: A guide to the chaos

Loyalists pointed out that during the previous leadership contest against Truss this summer, Sunak’s candidacy received the most support from his parliamentary colleagues. And many of his economic ideas have turned out to be prescient, those backers said.

Not all were so gushing about the man set to become prime minister.

His critics contended that he betrayed Johnson, his old boss, when he resigned as finance minister in early July. That led to the collapse of the cabinet soon afterward, and then Johnson’s downfall.

Seething or celebrating? Prospect of Boris Johnson comeback divides U.K.

Speculation of Johnson’s return to the political fray laid bare the intense divisions in opinion on him among politicians and much of the weary British public.

After putting his hat in, Johnson on Sunday withdrew from the race.

Third in the Conservative Party race was Penny Mordaunt, a middle-level cabinet minister seeking to become a household name.

Mordaunt said she was encouraged to run by colleagues who wanted a “fresh start,” but she was viewed by some Conservatives as a compromise candidate for politicians in the Sunak and Johnson camps who could not quite bring themselves to back a rival. Her numbers remained low.

A candidate needs to gain more than 100 votes from the party’s members of Parliament to progress to the next round. There are 357 Conservative lawmakers in office. If more than one candidate crosses the threshold, Conservative Parliament members take “indicative” votes to try to narrow the field. If the field remains divided, they take an online vote of party members.

But if only one individual secures that number before nominations close, they win outright.

Under pressure, Mordaunt bowed out Monday before the 2 p.m. local time deadline, making Sunak the country’s new leader and putting an end, at least temporarily, to the political instability rocking Britain.

Despite the quick election, many in British politics remain frustrated. Opposition parties including Labour are calling for a general election so that the exasperated public can have a say in who becomes the next British prime minister.

“The truth is [that] just passing around the prime minister job, the chancellor job, like it’s some sort of game of ‘pass the parcel,’ is not going to provide the country with the leadership and the stability that we desperately need,” Sunak’s former opposite number, Labour Party shadow finance minister Rachel Reeves, told the BBC on Friday.

The U.K.'s new prime minister

The latest: In his first speech as British prime minister, Rishi Sunak warned his country that tough economic times — and tough decisions — were ahead. The day also marked the end of Liz Truss’s tenure as Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, after just 49 days in office.

Who is Rishi Sunak?: He competed against Truss to lead Britain’s Conservative Party after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his scandal-induced resignation in July. Loyalists point out that his candidacy received the most support from his parliamentary colleagues. And many of his economic ideas have turned out to be prescient, those backers say.

Why did Liz Truss resign?: Truss came to office with a vision for a low-tax, small government state. Her financial plan tanked the British economy and politicians from the ruling Conservative Party called on her to quit. According to new polling, only 10 percent of the country viewed Truss favorably.

Loading...