LONDON — In his first speech as British prime minister, Rishi Sunak warned his country that tough economic times — and tough decisions — were ahead, acknowledged that “mistakes were made” by his predecessors and said he would work hard to earn the people’s trust.
“Trust is earned and I will earn yours,” he said, but he did not offer a list of policies or solutions.
His brief speech, minutes after he was asked to form a new government by King Charles III, was tightly focused; there was no celebration, no victory lap.
The 42-year-old Sunak, the youngest prime minister here in 200 years, stressed the word “hard” in his remarks. “I fully appreciate how hard things are,” he said.
At the door of 10 Downing Street, he waved to photographers for the traditional photo op. He did not smile. A photographer shouted, “Be happy!” But he did not beam or give a thumbs up, as Johnson would have. He struck a pose of being all business.
Sunak promised Britons “to put your needs above politics,” adding, “together we can achieve incredible things.”
He spent the day building his Cabinet — and the appointments provided the first bit of insight into what direction he wants to take Britain. Among the first key positions confirmed: Jeremy Hunt, Prime Minister Liz Truss’s second finance minister, will stay on, presumably to build on the economic policies he announced when gutting Truss’s supply-side agenda.
Hunt will be the one White man in what are known as “great offices of state.” The other top jobs went to Suella Braverman, who returns as home secretary after stepping down last week in a spat with Truss, and James Cleverly, who is staying on as foreign secretary.
Cleverly will continue to support Ukraine in its war with Russia. Braverman is a hard-liner on immigration. She wants Britain to slash the number of newcomers and to send those who arrive in the U.K. illegally to Rwanda to press their asylum claims.
The day also marked the end of Truss’s tenure as Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, after just 49 days in office. Her attempt to cut taxes for high earners and corporations without a plan to pay for it caused markets to reel. She backpedaled, but she could not save her premiership.
Truss hosted a final cabinet meeting Tuesday morning and then made brief, defiant farewell remarks outside, saying she still believed in a high-wage, high-growth economy. “From my time as prime minister, I am more convinced than ever that we need to be bold and confront the challenges we face. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, ‘It’s not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it’s because we do not dare, that they are difficult.’” She stumbled somewhat over Seneca’s name.
“It means lower taxes so people can keep more of the money they earn. And it means delivering growth that will lead to more job security, higher wages and more opportunities for our children and grandchildren,” Truss said.
Truss, who will now join former prime ministers Theresa May and Johnson as a lawmaker on the backbenches in Parliament, said Britain would continue to support Ukraine. She wished “every success” to her replacement. She closed with: “We continue to battle through a storm, but I believe in Britain, I believe in the British people and I know that brighter days lie ahead.”
Then she was driven by motorcade to Buckingham Palace, where she resigned in person to the new king. Sunak followed her to the palace. News helicopters tracked their journeys from overhead.
Sunak will not only be the youngest prime minister in modern British history, but the first Hindu and person of Indian descent to lead the country.
Sunak was invited by the king to form a government in a ceremony known as “kissing hands.” The last time this happened, it was Queen Elizabeth II who invited Truss to form a government, a moment that turned out to be the last time the queen was photographed before her death.
The contest to replace Truss was wrapped up surprisingly fast — it was less than a week ago that she resigned. Johnson made a brief bid to return to power. But he and the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, dropped out of the contest when it was clear Conservative Party lawmakers weren’t rallying around them.
Tory grandee Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, told LBC radio that Johnson found himself “struggling and begging people for votes. That was demeaning, really.”
The Financial Times, citing unnamed sources, said Johnson may seek to spend time in Washington, ensuring that U.S. support for Ukraine remains strong.
Sunak’s appointment has so far calmed the markets, but many will be watching next week when Hunt will lay out plans for how to balance the books after Truss’s plans were shredded even while she was in government.
President Biden, who had called Britain’s selection of its first non-White prime minister “a groundbreaking milestone,” spoke with Sunak by phone late Tuesday. Their conversation touched on joint efforts to counter China’s influence, support Ukraine and ensure security in Northern Ireland, according to a Downing Street readout. They will meet in person at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia next month. (Hopefully Biden figured out the correct pronunciation— not “Rashi Sanook,” as he had said earlier in the day, but “RIH-she SOO-nak.”)
Sunak, a former finance minister and hedge fund manager, comes to office with some of the harshest economic head winds here in a generation, including some of his creation. He will also seek to unite his warring and unpopular Conservative Party, which, he warned, must “unite or die.”
Opposition politicians don’t appear to be allowing much time for a honeymoon period. Jonathan Ashworth, a senior figure in the Labour Party, said, “Boris Johnson might not be back but many of his cabinet are.” He reiterated his party’s call for a general election.