In the aftermath of “partygate”, there is a growing sense that Boris Johnson has been severely weakened. Attention in the media is already turning to talk of his successor. , the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has a good chance of making history, if the latest polls are anything to go by.
An excellent example of social mobility, Sunak is the son of a pharmacist and an NHS GP. Rising to become arguably the second most powerful British politician a mere five years after entering Parliament is no mean feat.
He is married to , the daughter of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy. It goes without saying that his ties to India are substantial, even as he continues his meteoric rise in British politics. Sunak does uphold many aspects of his Indian and Hindu heritage, notably lighting a candle outside his . If he does make it to Prime Minister it would raise the profile of Indian culture considerably.
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The sense that I get as a political analyst is that there will be a party leadership contest by summer at the latest, as the UK gradually leaves the two-year nightmare of coronavirus behind and the need to keep an increasingly unpopular Johnson in office decreases. Many letters of no confidence in Johnson have already been sent to the powerful Tory 1922 Committee which can call a contest; 54 letters are needed to trigger a no-confidence vote and one Tory MP has defected to Labour – others may yet follow.
It is true that many ordinary Tory members do not wish for Johnson to leave yet, but voters in so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats in the North and Midlands (formerly safe Labour seats) which the Tories won in the historic December 2019 General Election may not feel the same way. That may well trigger a change at the top of the Tory party. There is no-one that is better placed than Sunak to win such a leadership contest. He leads nearest challenger, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (another impressive Tory performer) (who actually select the new Prime Minister!), a striking double digit lead which is well outside the standard margin of error for a poll. His slick media performances, high profile during the pandemic and innovative policies (such as ‘’) demonstrate a political brain of a superior order.
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As always, potential slippery banana skins abound for the frontrunners. Historically the frontrunner has tended to lose to the challenger in leadership contests. For example, David Davis was widely expected to beat David Cameron in 2005 but history of course happened differently. Secondly, a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer has gone on to 10 Downing St only twice in British history, Harold MacMillan and John Major; with Gordon Brown’s case somewhat different given a pre-agreed pact with Tony Blair.
It is also quite possible that voters in the North could reject him as a ‘posh’ Tory that they cannot easily relate to, like David Cameron. For example, Sunak was pictured in a £95 pair of slippers prior to the October 2021 budget, not a great way to connect with working class voters struggling in the pandemic aftermath. Furthermore, liberal metropolitan southern English voters may find Sunak’s views on Brexit a turn-off, given that he is a staunch Brexiteer and many of them were anti-Brexit. The need to raise taxes to plug holes in British public finances post-coronavirus could also hurt Sunak at the polls, narrowing his lead over the likes of Truss, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid – after all he will be the Chancellor who raises taxes. That could cause problems with the low-tax loving .
There is another, not so publicly discussed obstacle: the long-standing spectre of racism. Minorities in the UK have long suspected that there is xenophobia and racism behind the constant anti-immigration rhetoric in the media, which builds into pressure on politicians to restrict immigration. Ironically for the pro-Brexit Sunak, this sentiment could easily be subtly turned against him by competitors in the dog-eat-dog world of politics. It is entirely possible that voters who profess to support Sunak publicly could privately change their minds and vote for a rival, substantially erasing his lead. However, I would like to think British society has changed substantially over the past few decades, with equal opportunities for minorities a sign of a change in thinking and attitudes.
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Sunak has shown himself to have a good sense of how to gain and retain the support of the public, such as his expansive for working people eg the Universal Credit rise, the grants for self-employed and businesses. This is the sign of an astute politician in touch with people’s concerns. When the pandemic hit, he showed himself to be both responsible and flexible under substantial pressure, a very impressive showing for a relatively inexperienced politician.
Rishi Sunak is the strong favourite to be the UK’s first Indian-origin Prime Minister, should there be a leadership contest. This would be an outstanding achievement and a point for great pride for Indians everywhere. He has the potential to be the most powerful public face of the ‘’, of Indian origin people succeeding abroad. That would be auspicious, with now underway.
Not since Barack Obama in 2008 have I been so enthused by a candidate for high office. If he wins, it would be a great thing to celebrate for the UK, a sign of a confident country slowly leaving its colonial complexes behind.
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is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.