On October 24, just four days after the resignation of former leader Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak was announced as the new leader of the British Conservative Party—and thus Britain’s next prime minister. Sunak will succeed Truss less than seven weeks after she defeated him in the previous Tory leadership contest triggered by the resignation of Boris Johnson in July, making him the fifth Conservative prime minister in six years.
Sunak will be the first person of color in British history to assume the role and, at 42 years old, will be its youngest leader in more than 200 years. Given Sunak’s, estimated net worth of around $800 million—which makes him significantly richer than the recently appointed King Charles III—he will also become the wealthiest leader in the democratic world.
Sunak was the preferred candidate of Conservative MPs during the previous leadership contest but was beaten by Truss due to the party’s unusual system of having its members—a base estimated to include between 180,000 to 200,000 voters—elect the next leader. At the beginning of September, Truss was elected in part for her hard line on issues including immigration and tax cuts (the latter of which would lead to her undoing), as well as for her perceived loyalty to Johnson. The latter remains popular with the party base, and Sunak was seen as a traitor to Johnson for resigning in the wake of the sexual-misconduct scandal surrounding MP Chris Pincher that eventually forced Johnson to step down.
Many within the Conservative Party hope that Sunak’s election will calm the dangerously choppy waters of the British economy. Truss’s catastrophic signature policy, introduced in late September alongside her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, saw her deliver tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy. This led to the pound sinking to an all-time low against the US dollar, as well as interventions from the Bank of England and the rare issuing of a critical statement from the International Monetary Fund. During the previous contest, Sunak had warned repeatedly against Truss’s proposed measures, predicting they would lead to economic disaster; later vindicated, he was seen within the party as the likeliest figure to stabilize the government again.
For many outside the party, however, Sunak’s election is seen as a fundamental betrayal of British democracy, given the failed Conservative leaderships of Theresa May, Johnson, and Truss before him, all of which ended in resignations. There have been repeated calls by both Labour leader Keir Starmer and the general public more broadly for a general election, which the Tories have ignored in their efforts to cling to power, insisting they still have a mandate for government.
Sunak’s win marks the latest chapter in an extraordinary rise to the top of British politics. Born in Southampton in 1980 to a doctor father and a pharmacist mother of Indian heritage, Sunak went to the elite Winchester College, after which he read philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford and completed an MBA at Stanford University as a Fulbright scholar. (It was at the latter that he met his wife, Akshata Murty, who is the daughter of an Indian billionaire and whose inherited wealth makes up the most significant chunk of Sunak’s net worth.) A career in finance followed, with stints at Goldman Sachs and a number of hedge funds.
Sunak’s first political appointment came in 2015, when he was elected as the Conservative member of parliament for Richmond in North Yorkshire. A vocal supporter of Brexit, he moved up the ranks swiftly, eventually being appointed chief secretary to the treasury under Boris Johnson and later to chancellor—arguably the country’s second most powerful position—following a cabinet reshuffle in 2020. Steering the British economy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunak had a brief surge in popularity after announcing sweeping economic measures to support workers who had been furloughed or laid off but was later mired in the so-called partygate scandal (involving illegal parties at 10 Downing Street during lockdown) that came to plague the Johnson government.
Sunak’s resignation, along with that of health secretary Sajid Javid, in the final days of Johnson’s leadership was widely seen as the final nail in the coffin for Johnson, leading him to tender his resignation two days later. Soon after, Sunak began his campaign to replace Johnson, with many in the British media—particularly the right-wing tabloid press, which remained largely loyal to Johnson—painting him as a backstabber, the effects of which undoubtedly influenced the results of the leadership contest that led to Truss’s appointment as leader.
A vocal critic of Truss’s economic policies, Sunak quickly emerged as a front-runner for the role of prime minister after Truss tendered her own resignation on October 20. Keen to avoid the protracted process of the previous contest, which took more than six weeks, the Conservatives announced that their next leader would be decided in less than a week. While Boris Johnson briefly entered the race, he withdrew again on October 23, with many speculating that he had failed to receive the number of endorsements needed to mount a campaign. Penny Mordaunt, who came third in the previous contest after Truss and Sunak, also entered the fray but withdrew this morning minutes before Sunak’s victory was announced, citing her failure to secure the required nominations.
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The road ahead for Sunak will not be easy. Many of the issues that were exacerbated by Truss’s failed economic experiment—including rampant inflation and a cost-of-living-crisis that is only set to worsen with rising fuel prices in winter—will still be present, and Sunak will have to introduce a number of belt-tightening economic measures that could end up driving the Conservatives, who are already lagging behind the Labour party by as much as 30% in some polls, into deeper unpopularity among the general public. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are at arguably the most divided point in their history—making it likely that Sunak will launch his leadership with a message of unity and stability.
Next, Sunak will meet with King Charles III, who is reported to be on his way back from the royal estate of Sandringham in Norfolk to accept Truss’s resignation and appoint Sunak as her successor later today.