Boris Johnson struggles to remain Prime Minister while bookies favour Rishi Sunak as a successor
Indian-origin Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak ranks among the favourites to take over as PM if Johnson is shown the door. Ashis Ray looks at Sunak’s rise from waiting tables to PM-in-Waiting
In the 1990s, a teenager of Indian descent waited tables during his summer holidays at Kuti’s, a curry house overlooking the English Channel in the port city of Southampton.
The establishment’s Bangladeshi-origin owner Kuti Mia proudly narrates the story as he otherwise regales diners about his life’s journey from Sylhet to the south coast of England. He has reason to be proud, for this boy is today British bookmakers’ and his party’s rank and file’s favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as the United Kingdom’s prime minister. That is, in the event the ruling Conservatives decide to pull the rug on the incumbent, a distinct possibility in the middle of the week.
What the service of food and drinks, the clearing of plates by the lad concealed was that at term time he, the son of a doctor father and pharmacist mother – Hindu Punjabis from East Africa-- was a boarder at Winchester College, a school founded in 1382 and one of the oldest in Britain -- a dozen miles up the M3 motorway from his parents’ home. In India, the distinguished institution is often associated with the dashing late Indian cricket captain Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi and Congress politician Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, who, too, are no more.
The budding student then straddled the coveted subjects of philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford, before obtaining a Master’s degree in business administration as a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University in the United States. He thereafter worked for investment bankers Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund. One is of course referring to Rishi Sunak, now the British Chancellor of the Exchequer.
It’s quite path-breaking in British politics, more so in the right-wing Conservative party, that a non-white is even being mentioned as a possible prime minister of the UK. A nation that ruled India for nearly 200 years, treated Indians as a subject race unfit for self-governance for much of that period, is today debating the prospect of pitchforking a 41-year-old of Indian extraction to the top job in government.
There is as yet no certainty that this will happen. But history is appearing to come full circle. The Conservatives were the last of the major British political formations to consider people from its erstwhile colonies as parliamentary candidates.
Until 2010, Shailesh Vara, a solicitor of East African Gujarati descent, was the lone Asian face in the Conservative benches in the House of Commons.
Subsequently, following three resounding general election defeats at the hands of the Tony Blair-led leftwing Labour party, the Conservatives democratically, yet dramatically opted for a fresh face with an impressive academic background at Oxford as its new leader – David Cameron.
The Oxonian set about reforming the party. Racist attitudes, male chauvinism and homophobia, among other deep-rooted shortcomings, were discouraged. As part of a new color-sensitive approach, Asian and black activists were positioned as future parliamentarians.
Cameron was elected party leader in December 2005. Nine months later he embarked on a significant visit to India. His utterances there not only startled Britons, but also pleasantly his hosts.
He told a then surging India under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “Our special relationship with America has been forged through a shared past and a shared under-standing of the world. And now, in the 21st century, as the world’s centre of gravity moves from Europe and the Atlantic to the south and the east, I believe it is time for Britain and India to forge a new special relationship, to meet our shared challenges in this new era of international affairs.”
That he meant what he said was testified by this vision being incorporated in the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto. Indeed, within weeks of becoming prime minister, he rushed to India to consolidate his dream. The two countries signed an agreement to achieve the goal. But neither Singh nor his successor Narendra Modi fulfilled New Delhi’s commitment during Cameron’s tenure as prime minister.
Two years into his premiership, having meanwhile promoted a clutch of MPs of Indian descent – among them Priti Patel and Alok Sharma, who are now also cabinet ministers – Cameron ventured into another daring forecast – that his Conservative party was going to be the first in Britain to have a prime minister of Indianextraction.
“We were the first party to have a woman prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) – [there has been a second one since in Theresa May] – we were the first party in (Benjamin) Disraeli to have a Jewish prime minister and when I look at the talent behind me I think we are going to be the first party to have a British Indian prime minister,” he said. Even Indians scoffed at this prediction; it was perceived as an attempt to please Indian origin voters.
Historically, migrants from India in the UK felt more at home with Labour.
They shunned the Conservatives, because of their anti-immigration stance. Their imperialist, war-time prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, vehemently opposed Indian independence in contrast to Labour facilitating India’s freedom.
Initially, East African Gujarati asylum-seekers, too, were more comfortable with Labour; but as they found their feet in the UK, their business antecedents gradually persuaded many of them to turn to the Conservatives. Sikhs from Indian Punjab, though, continued to vote virtually en mass for Labour.
Between 1987 and 2010, Labour steadily enlarged its contingent of MPs of Indian background. This is when Cameron began correcting the imbalance. In 2015, he awarded a ticket to Sunak. In a span of less than five years as a lawmaker, the overseas Indian was catapulted to the powerful post of chancellor.
Allegations of corruption and dishonesty against Johnson, evidence of serial violations of Covid-19 lockdown laws by his office and himself, including boozy, disco-dancing parties, have inflicted a considerable reputational damage on the Conservatives. He has hitherto wriggled out of potentially career-ending alleged sex scandals to financial improprieties. Can he perform another Houdini act? When police are about to question him “under caution” or as a potential suspect?
Higher taxes necessitated by a gaping budget deficit resulting from Covid, Brexit - which Johnson backed enthusiastically - triggered an export shortfall and inflation has been caused by higher import costs or shortages. There have moreover been cuts in state benefits for the vulnerable.
British Conservative MPs have historically been ruthless in culling leaders who they envision as unlikely to re-elect them. They were unsparing with Margaret Thatcher despite her leading them to a hat-trick of election victories. John Major, William Hague, Ian Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard were dealt with mercilessly. Johnson’s careless unruffled blond hair, his persona of a lovable comic has stood him in good stead. Indeed, won him two elections as mayor of London and another as prime minister in 2019.
But not since Labour’s heady popularity under Blair has this party registered a double-digit lead in opinion polls as it presently commands over the Conservatives consequent to Johnson’s plummeting public esteem.
A journalist by background, he was sacked as The Times’ Brussels correspondent for fabricating stories, before finding sanctuary at the Daily Telegraph. Has his contempt for the truth finally caught up with him? His charmed existence in public life is seemingly a bit insecure.
Sunak’s Keynesian generosity in distributing grants and furloughs to employers and employees respectively during the Covid crisis prevented the catastrophe of mass business closures and unprecedented unemployment.
This also propelled him from obscurity to fame. But enhanced national insurance contributions to balance the books and escalating food and energy prices might mean the endearment is on borrowed time. Therefore, his window for seizing the reins could be before the flack hits him.
In a kingdom of punters, bookmakers offer prices on almost any and everything; and these have shortened on Sunak winning a resultant leadership contest, with Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, billed as second favourite, followed by the chairman of the health select committee Jeremy Hunt, who lost to Johnson in 2019. Hunt was previously both secretary of state for health and foreign secretary.
A dark horse is the chair of the foreign affairs select committee Tom Tugendhat, an erstwhile army officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Truss has risen in popularity among grass-root Conservatives, who will ultimately decide on a new leader, but is not highly rated in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall. Hunt boasts a mixed record.
The Conservatives’ leadership election rules dictate that MPs downsize the contestants to two, before the matter devolves to membership level.
A powerful body within the Conservative parliamentary wing known as the 1922 Committee has to receive letters from 15% of its party’s 360 MPs to summon a competition.
However, the ceaseless speculation could be scuppered by a steady fall in Covid Omicron cases and fewer deaths compared to earlier waves of the infection. This in turn has removed restraints on the British public. A feelgood factor thus generated could instigate Britons to forget and forgive, thereby rescuing Johnson.
Fighting with his back to the wall, he has desperately announced a slew of populist programmes to woo the public, not to mention flying to Ukraine to pose as a defender of this country against perceived Russian expansionism.
Conventional wisdom suggests it will be a huge leap of faith for the Conservative party to rally behind a non-white as party leader. But if a leadership contest takes place in the near future, bookmakers seem to think the odds are in favour of Sunak.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)