Rishi Sunak: British Prime Minister in waiting?

PTI, Jan 14, 2022, 5:37 PM IST

Image credit: REUTERS/Toby Melville

London: As Boris Johnson’s “partygate” troubles mount and members of his own Conservative Party demand he step down as the British Prime Minister, one name is doing the rounds as a frontrunner to take charge – his Indian-origin Chancellor and Downing Street neighbor Rishi Sunak.

The UK-born son of a pharmacist mother and a National Health Service (NHS) general practitioner (GP) father is an Oxford University and Stanford graduate. He is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, and the couple has two young daughters Krishna and Anoushka.

The MP for Richmond in Yorkshire first entered the UK Parliament in 2015 and has quickly risen up the Tory party ranks as a staunch Brexiteer, who had backed Johnson’s strategy to leave the European Union (EU).

From working in my mum’s tiny chemist shop to my experience building large businesses, I have seen how we should support free enterprise and innovation to ensure Britain has a stronger future,” Sunak had said during the Brexit referendum.

He co-founded a 1-billion-pound global investment firm and specialised in investing in small British businesses before his entry into politics.

As the first Chancellor of the Exchequer of Indian heritage, Sunak made history in February 2020 when he was appointed to the most important UK Cabinet post.

If the Tory party murmurings and bookie betting odds are anything to go by, then the 41-year-old may well be in line to make history as Britain’s first Indian-origin Prime Minister.

”No, definitely not. Seeing what the Prime Minister has to deal with, this is a job hard enough for me to do,” Sunak said back in October 2020, when asked if he had prime ministerial ambitions.

But a lot has happened since, with Sunak leading the charge for the country’s economic fightback against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the schemes he put in place as finance minister, including the furlough-based Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and COVID support grants for struggling businesses over the course of several lockdowns, have proved largely popular.

However, proposed tax hikes coming up from this April and consistently rising energy and cost of living costs have proved less popular within the Conservative Party base.

The famously low-tax favoring Tories may find his high tax plans to recoup some of the lost economic ground during the pandemic hard to digest when things really come to a leadership scrum.

In fact, there is already talk within the party ranks of him having overplayed his hand by not speaking out more firmly in support of 57-year-old Johnson, following his Parliament apology earlier this week over a Downing Street garden party in apparent breach of lockdown rules.

Sunak, who was miles away on a business visit, tweeted much later in the evening to say that “the PM was right to apologize and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her inquiry”.

This was seen as a half-hearted show of support and viewed as reflective of his own leadership ambitions.

The wealth associated with Sunak and his wife Akshata has also often hit the spotlight for the wrong reasons, with the Chancellor’s 95-pound pair of slippers spotted in official photographs released pre-Budget last October the latest luxury item to hit the headlines.

This followed being pictured with a 180- pound so-called “smart mug”, which was reportedly a gift from his wife.

However, his image as a family man who wears bracelets made by his daughters ahead of important speeches is the narrative that the British Indian community would like to highlight.

He has also often spoken about himself as a “proud Hindu”, most recently when he unveiled a new 5-pound commemorative coin celebrating the life of Mahatma Gandhi for Diwali last November.

“As a practicing Hindu, I am proud to unveil this coin during Diwali. Mahatma Gandhi was instrumental in the movement for Indian independence and it is fantastic to have a UK coin commemorating his remarkable life for the first time,” he said at the time.

Ever since he took charge as Chancellor, there has been speculation within the UK media about Sunak eyeing the top job to move next door from his current No. 11 Downing Street office.

A Prime Minister and Chancellor at odds with each other has been a historic dynamic within British politics and much of the speculation was attributed to that political power play.

However, with Johnson becoming increasingly embattled within his own party ranks, that Downing Street neighborly dynamic may just go on to create new British Indian history.

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