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Rishi Sunak to become U.K. prime minister, first person of color in role

Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak arrives at his party's headquarters in London on Monday. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

LONDON — After months of political fever, Britain on Tuesday will get a new prime minister, the third in two months, with the country now looking to Rishi Sunak — a former finance minister and hedge-fund manager, a 42-year-old whiz kid, richer than the royals — to beat back the harshest economic head winds here in a generation, including some of his own creation.

Sunak, a practicing Hindu of Indian descent, will be the first person of color to serve in Britain’s highest office, and his Conservative Party leadership win Monday, coinciding with the festival of Diwali, marked a moment of jubilation among many in Britain with South Asian heritage.

London’s ‘Little India’ marks Diwali and Rishi Sunak’s win as prime minister

Sunak’s rise to the top office is especially significant in a country that has sometimes struggled to grapple with the legacy of its colonialist past. Britain ruled India for almost a century, from 1858 to 1947, and the modern-day United Kingdom is filled with the children and grandchildren of immigrants from the former realm.

In Southall, an area of west London sometimes called Little India for its large diaspora, people in the streets celebrated Sunak — even though many residents support the opposition Labour Party.

“If Rishi Sunak ever dreamed he would be prime minister on Diwali day, well, you couldn’t take bets on this. What a wonderful thing,” said Davinderpal Singh Kooner, 67, a dental surgeon, who was speaking outside a temple as young children lit candles behind him.

Live updates: How the contest to be the new leader of Britain unfolded

“It’s a unique moment to have an Asian PM,” he said — pausing for the fireworks that burst in a bright display of red above his head — “it’s a pivotal moment in the politics of this country.”

Hardeep Marwa, 45, a tech worker with the National Health Service, said his friends were talking about Sunak’s win as “an Obama moment.”

“It’s opening the door for South Asians to go into politics,” Marwa said.

Others in Britain were not so celebratory — for the fact was that members of the public in this race were mere spectators, with no role to play, as Conservative Party lawmakers in the House of Commons concluded, based on votes by 357 members, that Sunak was their savior.

Richer than the royals: Win puts Rishi Sunak’s wealth in the spotlight

In a brief televised address, his first as Tory leader, Sunak paid tribute to the “dignity and grace” of outgoing prime minister Liz Truss — whose six-week tenure was an unprecedented disaster — and warned that Britain faced a “profound economic challenge.” In those few words, the sunny forecasts of a post-Brexit “Global Britain,” previously sold by Sunak and his predecessors, began to be grounded in new realities.

Sunak vowed to serve with “integrity and humility” — qualities he suggested were lacking when he resigned from Boris Johnson’s government and led a revolt against his former boss. He called for “stability and unity” — in other words, the opposite of the tumult and divisions that characterized Truss’s tenure.

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)

Opposition politicians don’t appear to be leaving much leeway for a honeymoon period. On Monday, they continued their calls for a general election. Labour lawmaker Angela Rayner complained that Sunak’s accession was a coronation and that the Tories could not “keep doling out prime ministers every month.” Labour leader Keir Starmer charged that Sunak was “covered in the mess” that 12 years of Conservative rule had created.

Sunak is a center-right moderate who promises to craft a prudent path to balance Britain’s books and address its sky-high debt, which is partly a result of his own borrowing. Sunak wrote big checks as chancellor under Johnson during the pandemic. He had the government cover up to 80 percent of wages for millions of furloughed British workers — one of the most generous pandemic subsidies in the world. He also promoted a month of subsidized meals in August 2020, dubbed “Eat Out to Help Out “or “Rishi’s dishes,” designed to get Britons back into eateries.

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

The pandemic bills around the world are now coming due. And Britain’s predicament was made worse by Truss’s plan to slash taxes for the wealthy and corporations and double down on borrowing, hoping for a surge in supply-side growth.

Even after Truss gutted her plan and announced her resignation, the country’s top stock index, the FTSE 100, is struggling. The pound has been pounded and is trading with the dollar at $1.13. The Bank of England is predicting a recession for Britain in the coming months. Inflation has crested at 10.1 percent, a 40-year high, with the cost of living soaring because of higher energy and food costs, driven in part by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Moody’s ratings agency lowered Britain’s economic outlook from “stable” to “negative” on Friday, citing “the heightened unpredictability in policymaking amid a volatile domestic political landscape” and “the risk of more persistent inflation.”

Once-stolid Britain has become something of a global laughingstock, a Northern European version of Italy, with its constant churn of direction and leaders, as allies ask: Who has the keys to this car?

Johnson entertained a return to the driver’s seat, mounting a bid that fizzled Sunday. He said he had enough support to proceed to a vote among Conservative Party lawmakers Monday — a claim that was not reflected in tallies of declared lawmakers by the BBC and the Guardian. Johnson said, “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”

Dark-horse challenger Penny Mordaunt, the Conservative leader in the House of Commons, withdrew Monday just ahead of a deadline to secure endorsements. “It is clear that colleagues feel we needed certainty today,” Mordaunt said in a message posted to Twitter. “This decision is a historic one and shows, once again, the diversity and talent of our party. Rishi has my full support.”

There’s never been a prime minister quite like Sunak. Many in India and its diaspora hailed the milestone in British politics as a testament to the country’s multiculturalism — contrasting with a history of colonialism and racism.

Rishi Sunak’s ascent to U.K. leader hailed in India as ‘incredible feat’

In India, the development took on additional meaning, particularly among nationalists who celebrated the prospect of a politician of Indian origin — and a practicing Hindu — taking the reins of a former colonial power that once ruled their country. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his congratulations to Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians” and expressing hope that together they would “transform our historic ties into a modern partnership.”

In Britain, Sunak’s heritage was being celebrated as “going against the grain of deeply racial hierarchies,” said Avinash Paliwal, a lecturer in diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies. But in India, he added, “it’ll be celebrated and feed into the popular narrative of rising Indian — even Hindu — global power.”

Anuj Dhar, a Delhi-based author who has written about Indian freedom fighters, hailed the “incredible feat” that a person of Indian descent would lead Britain. And Priti Gandhi, a leader in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said she cheered “with great joy” the rise of a “proud Hindu who publicly acknowledges and respects his culture and roots.”

Moving into Downing Street will be step down for Sunak. He is one of the wealthiest people in Britain. 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 Rich List. On the same list, published before the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch was estimated to have about $420 million.

The couple’s money comes primarily from Murty’s stake in her father’s company, Infosys, which also employs thousands of workers in Britain.

Earlier this year, Sunak’s wife was at the center of a tax scandal after it emerged that she had been filing in the United Kingdom as a “non-domiciled” resident, which allowed her to avoid paying British taxes on the substantial income she earned abroad.

Sunak was asked about his wealth during the last leadership contest. He denied that being rich made him out of touch. “I tend not to judge people by how much is in their bank account, I judge them by their value and their actions,” he said.

Annabelle Timsit and Leo Sands in London contributed to this report.