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Monday, February 26, 2024 | Back issues
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Rishi Sunak to become next British prime minister  

Sunak’s rise to the office of prime minister, just weeks after losing his bid for the top job, represents a remarkable turnaround in political fortunes. The future of his party now depends largely on his performance.

(CN) — Rishi Sunak is set to be installed as British prime minister by Conservative Party members of Parliament, only seven weeks after he lost his party’s leadership contest to the outgoing Liz Truss.

Truss was ousted by her party last Thursday following a devastating market reaction to her flagship tax cuts, which she had planned to fund through borrowing. Sunak will become the fifth United Kingdom prime minister in six years, underlining the scale of political instability that has taken hold of the country in recent times. He is also the first British Asian to take up the post.

Sunak has managed to defy an audacious bid by Boris Johnson to be reinstated as prime minister, following his ousting amid multiple scandals less than 20 weeks ago. His only other leadership rival, Penny Mordaunt, appears to have failed to gather sufficient support among MPs and has withdrawn.

Sunak is widely seen in the Conservative Party as a safe pair of hands whose economic approach has gained considerable credibility in recent weeks. During the previous leadership election in August, he frequently dismissed Truss’s ill-fated fiscal approach as “fairytale economics,” and accurately predicted the likely dire fallout from Truss’s plan to introduce unfunded tax cuts.

Back in September, Sunak lost his leadership bid, winning 42.6% of the Tory vote compared to Truss’s 57.4%. However, given the perilous position the party now finds itself in following Truss’s chaotic and short-lived premiership, MPs have been desperate to avoid giving the membership another say, instead choosing to quickly coalesce around a single candidate in order to stem rising anger across the country.

The installation of Sunak completes a meteoric rise to the top of British politics. The 42-year old MP was plucked out of relatively obscurity back in January 2020 by Boris Johnson to become chancellor, the top finance minister and second most powerful role in the U.K. government.

As chancellor, Sunak was almost immediately thrust into managing the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and became well known to Brits due to his association with the furlough scheme, in which the government paid the wages of those unable to work during the crisis.

Despite furlough and other extensive interventions made during the pandemic, Sunak is widely regarded as fiscally prudent, having frequently presented an obstacle to several spending plans under the Johnson government. This perception gained him broad support within the Conservative Party over the weekend, as Tories seek to restore Britain’s economic credibility by introducing tax rises and spending cuts.

The stunning collapse of Truss’s government, which had barely established itself in office before dramatically falling apart, had left the Conservatives scrambling for a unity candidate who can calm open civil war in the party, restore stability to Britain’s volatile and crisis-ridden governance, and help to stave off demands for a general election.

In the U.K, the date of a possible general election is at the discretion of the prime minister, but must take place before January 2025. However, given that Sunak is now the third head of government since Brits last voted, calls for an immediate general election are growing. This is particularity the case as the government appears to be departing from key manifesto commitments made in the last election in 2019, most notably on public spending, which is now widely expected to be reduced. Polling suggests that almost two-thirds of voters want an immediate election.

Many Conservatives will be breathing a sigh of relief that Sunak’s coronation was not derailed by the dramatic entrance of Johnson into the contest. Following Truss’s resignation on Thursday, several prominent MPs announced their backing for the former prime minister, who believes he was ousted unjustly back in July.

Had Johnson reached the threshold of 100 MPs required for nomination, instead of bowing out of the contest on Sunday, he would have likely won in a grassroots membership vote. But any return to 10 Downing Street would have brought with it considerable risk and baggage – not least the fact that Johnson remains under investigation for misleading Parliament.

The challenge for Sunak is now one of damage limitation. As well as restoring political authority to the government, he will seek to balance the U.K.’s large budget deficit and regain a sense of normality in a political environment upended by constant crisis. While the electoral prospects of his party now seem dire, many MPs hope that Sunak will do a competent enough job to prevent a total wipe-out in any future election.

However, Sunak has his detractors. His positioning as successor to Johnson was derailed by a series of allegations about his financial affairs back in April this year, including the revelation that Sunak had declared himself a resident of the United States, even while serving as U.K. chancellor. Sunak’s status as the richest member of Parliament, with a fortune of 730 million pounds ($824 million) shared with his wife, is also likely to be targeted by opposition parties, who accuse him of being out of touch during a cost-of-living crisis. In addition, Sunak is received poorly among many rank-and-file Conservative members, who on this occasion did not have a say in his selection.

The pressing concern of the new prime minister will be to oversee the new budget, scheduled for early next week, which looks set to revive austerity measures and raise taxation – both breaking pledges made by the Conservatives at the last election. Many key Sunak allies had already been placed in the cabinet during the dying days of Truss’s premiership. These include the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Grant Shapps. They are widely expected to be kept in their posts, helping to smooth over the transition from the outgoing administration.

Sunak may stand to benefit from an urgent collective need to demonstrate unity felt among Conservatives, while his consistent criticism of Truss and lack of association with the previous administration should also be in his favor. However, deep divisions remain in his parliamentary party, and the remaining voters still on their side are unlikely to tolerate any further unforced errors.

The latest polling by YouGov puts the Conservatives at just 19% nationwide, with the Labour Party at 56%.

Categories / Government, International, Politics

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