LONDON– Rishi Sunak, Britain’s former chancellor of the exchequer, has won the ruling Conservative Party’s leadership contest.
He will replace Liz Truss on Tuesday as the British prime minister, the third this year, at a time of economic challenges and political turbulence.
FIRST INDIAN-ORIGIN PM
Sunak, 42, is the first person of Indian origin to become the British prime minister. He is also the youngest prime minister in the country’s modern political history. Sunak was declared winner by the Tory backbench 1922 Committee shortly after the deadline on Monday afternoon when he emerged as the only contender who secured the required backing of at least 100 lawmakers. Another contender, Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, failed to garner enough votes. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson withdrew from the contest on Sunday despite the backing of 102 Tory lawmakers he claimed to have secured. Johnson said it was “simply not the right time” for him to stand for the leadership race as “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in Parliament.”
The leadership race was launched when Truss announced her resignation on Thursday after a little over six weeks in office. Her economic blueprint, the “mini-budget,” was blamed for causing market turmoil and tanking the Conservative Party’s poll rating. Monday’s victory was second time lucky for Sunak. In his first shot at the top job this summer, he lost to Truss in the head-to-head stage of the Tory leadership race, triggered then by scandal-hit Johnson’s resignation.
“PROFOUND ECONOMIC CHALLENGE”
Sunak inherits an economy that is on the brink of recession as a combination of energy crisis, cost-of-living crisis and runaway inflation defies any easy fix. Britain’s inflation rose by 10.1 percent in September as food costs keep rising. The squeeze on public spending has aggravated problems in key public services such as the National Health Service. British households have also been warned that they will face electricity blackouts this winter due to gas shortages. His predecessor’s solution of using debt-funded tax cuts to spur economic growth failed to turn the situation around. Truss’s economic strategy plunged the British pound to a 37-year low against the U.S. dollar, while pushing up the cost of government borrowing and mortgage rates.
In his first public address as the Tory leader, Sunak admitted that Britain is facing “a profound economic challenge.” “Sunak won’t set himself on fire the way Liz Truss did because he’s a more competent manager and a more savvy politician. However, he’s facing a very uphill task,” Professor Iain Begg from the London School of Economics and Political Science told Xinhua.
“The big challenge for Sunak is that he has to manage a series of complicated problems against a very inauspicious fiscal background. He can’t spend his way out of trouble the way he did (in the early months of the pandemic) when he was the chancellor,” Begg said. “Now it’s much more difficult because interest rates are rising, which means the cost of householders are going up. There is pressure on the public finances because of the previous rounds of public expenditure, so he’ll be walking various tightropes simultaneously,” he added.
LAST CHANCE SALOON
The frequent change of occupant at 10 Downing Street and a lack of effective policies to solve economic and social woes have drained the British public’s patience. “Britain’s standing in the world is going to be adversely affected by what’s happened over the last few months … Changing prime ministers, changing ministers, making decisions and unmaking decisions, all of this just looks terribly bad internationally. It’s not a serious form of government,” Begg said. The opposition parties, including the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, have renewed their calls for a general election, arguing that the general public should have a say over who leads the country instead of letting a handful of Tory party members call the shots.
A new polling by YouGov published hours after Sunak’s victory has found that a majority of people — 56 percent — believe he should call an early general election. In his address on Monday, Sunak also made a strong case for stability and unity as the seemingly endless drama in Westminster risks derailing the future of not only the Conservative Party but the whole country.
“We now need stability and unity. And I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together,” Sunak said. Sunak will officially become the new prime minister on Tuesday after meeting King Charles III in Buckingham Palace where the monarch will invite him to form a government. His first address to the nation outside 10 Downing Street later in the day on his vision and plans for Britain will offer a clue as to whether he can turn the tide. “The Conservatives are in what we call last chance saloon. If they don’t make Rishi Sunak premiership work, they are going to be slitting their own throats,” Begg said. – Xinhua