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‘Is Sunak Slippery or Smart?’ headline in Daily Telegraph sums up challenges before him

There are major challenges before the new British PM Rishi Sunak, with ‘Stop Rishi’ MPs in his own party unlikely to allow a long honeymoon period

Photo: Twitter/@AmericaGlobe
Photo: Twitter/@AmericaGlobe

Ashis Ray/ London

There are major challenges before the new British PM Rishi Sunak, with ‘Stop Rishi’ MPs in his own party unlikely to allow a long honeymoon period.

The markets however like Sunak and believe he can restore the gilt-edged rating historically enjoyed by the British economy from the catastrophic collapse instigated by Trussonomics. But the question is: will the ‘STOP RISHI’ MPs in his own Conservative party, who owe allegiance to ousted prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, allow him to govern peacefully? 

That is the challenge the 42-year-old, politically inexperienced Rishi Sunak – a person of Indian-descent – confronts as the first non-white leader of the ruling Conservatives (which is predominantly comprised of indigenous Britons) and prime minister of Britain. The British monarch King Charles III granted him an audience on 25 October and formally invited him to constitute a government. 

The recent bloodbath witnessed in British politics is quite unprecedented. Johnson was compelled to step down as head of government in July after a serial disregard of the truth and Truss fell on her sword on her 45th day in office – the shortest term of any British head of government in history – for recklessly ignoring fundamental economic principles of the necessity to balance the budget instead of indulging in populist, unaccounted giveaways. 

Sunak highlighted the fallacy of Truss’ promises during an extended leadership contest in the summer. He was unsurprisingly proved right. But, while he may be a safer pair of hands, albeit policy-wise un-endearing to the middle and poorer classes, his broad outlook is Thatcherite economics – discredited by Conservatives themselves after they ousted her in 1990. 

Besides, his opponents are unlikely to let him forget that he was robust in his support for Johnson to unseat Theresa May and against Jeremy Hunt in the leadership contest that followed, not to mention the fact that he resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer, thereby hastening Johnson’s downfall. 

The right-wing, pro-Conservative newspaper Daily Telegraph, also often the indirect voice of its former columnist Boris Johnson, unflatteringly asked on 24 October morning: ‘Is Sunak slippery – or smart?’ 

It maintained: ‘No one could deny that those backing Boris Johnson in the leadership contest (which he did not actually take part in) knew exactly who – and what – they were voting for. The same cannot necessarily be said for Rishi Sunak, a man whose career to date has been riddled with contradictions. His supporters say he is a man of the people, while detractors characterise him as “Davos Man” (a reference to his background as an investment banker and hedge fund manager).’ 

The commentary continued: ‘If the former Chancellor is to win the ultimate prize (which he since has), he will need to shake off the “slippery Sunak” tag and convince Tory MPs of what he truly stands for.’ 

In effect, Sunak has an uphill climb to unite his party. With nearly 190 of his MPs behind him, he clearly mustered a majority among the 357 Conservative lawmakers in the House of Commons. However, the sizeable minority who have reservations about him are sufficient in number - if they abstain or vote against a critical government motion being opposed by the non-treasury benches - to bring down his government. 

That is likely to be resisted by Conservatives, as a mid-term general election would automatically ensue and forecasts by opinion polls speak of a historical wipe-out of the Tories. Addressing fellow MPs at a closed-door meeting immediately after his election as leader, Sunak assured his audience he would not himself call a snap general election. Therefore, he appealed for unity to keep it at bay. 

He also told his colleagues he will adhere to the 2019 Conservative election manifesto – as this is the democratic basis for the party being in power and what the British electorate voted in favour of, notwithstanding two changes of prime ministers in less than three years. This, while being politically correct, could have been aimed at his detractors in the Johnson camp. 

After Johnson announced on 23 October night he was not going to run for the leadership, Sunak tweeted: ‘Boris Johnson delivered Brexit and the great vaccine roll-out. He led our country through some of the toughest challenges we have ever faced, and then took on Putin and his barbaric war in Ukraine.’ This amounted to bending over backwards to restrain the ‘big beast’ of his party. 

Sunak, in effect, is called upon to perform a tightrope walk within to lead his party into the next general election, which has to take place by December 2024. With a mere seven years in politics behind him, does he possess the experience to tackle what could be a testing assignment? 

While studying at Oxford University, he did a stint at Conservative party campaign headquarters. But it was not until 2015 that he became a candidate to fight the safe Tory rural Richmond, Yorkshire parliamentary seat, replacing the former foreign secretary William Hague. In 2018, Theresa May appointed him as a parliamentary under-secretary for local government. This was followed by Johnson making him chief secretary to the treasury before promoting him to the post of chancellor. 

It undoubtedly represents a meteoric rise, three years of seasoning in handling Britain’s finances; but little practical grounding in other spheres. Politics was of course one of his subjects at Oxford – theory, though, is a far cry from real life application. However, his university tutor is on record as saying he always had his eye on power. 

It was suspected there could have been a racist under-current among the rank and file which undermined Sunak’s prospects in the summer’s head-to-head versus Truss. Fortunately for him, the latest contest did not extend to the wider membership. At the same time, the sentiment among the white, elderly, Brexit-supporting, low tax-seeking general Conservative workers that he is not really a Briton may have receded, but not disappeared altogether. 

Bluntly put, Sunak is a brown man in a sea of white people. He has an inadequate political base in his party. Johnson in his self-interest is said to have reached out to him to conjure a ‘dream ticket’ in which the former probably saw himself as prime minister. The underlying message in this overture would have been that otherwise he will stand and win, since grass-root members were with him. Sunak didn’t fall for this bluff. 

But Boris and his brigade of 50-60 loyal MPs and still significant following in the constituencies are capable of demanding a unilateral scrapping of the Northern Ireland Protocol signed with the European Union as part of the Brexit deal and belligerence against Russia on Ukraine. The first would violate an international treaty and invite punitive consequences as well as ‘special’ friend the US’ wrath. The second would entail a continuing economic burden – because of the military aid being rendered to Kyiv – when cuts in expenditure is expected of Whitehall departments. 

The emotional excitement in India over Sunak’s rise to the stratosphere is understandable. It is perhaps especially sweet for Indians that the chief executive of India’s once colonial master is now a person of Indian origin. But Britain’s new prime minister should not be mistaken to be Indian. While his paternal grandparents hailed from what is now Pakistan, his parents were born and brought up in East Africa before they migrated to the United Kingdom. Their links with India are thereby tenuous and Sunak’s own rather remote, except that he is married to an Indian and his in-laws are very much rooted in India. 

As for the British government’s policy towards India, there is unlikely to be any seismic change. Britain’s even-handedness towards the perpetual tension between India and Pakistan will remain unchanged. There will also be no softness towards the sectarianism let loose by Narendra Modi within India. Moreover, differences on global political issues will not dissipate easily. 

Being of Indian extraction Sunak will have to constantly look over his shoulder to demonstrate he is not being unduly concessionary towards India. It should not be ignored that MPs of Pakistani origin, including former chancellor and home secretary Sajid Javid, were among the first to endorse his candidature. Whereas Indian origin MPs like Priti Patel and Alok Sharma subscribed to Johnson’s return.       

Earlier this year, Modi and Johnson committed to a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries by Diwali. This deadline has clearly been missed. The description of the concord being negotiated as an FTA is an exaggeration. A better definition would be a limited FTA. But even this pact was scuppered by Suella Braverman, home secretary under Truss, who opposed freer movement of Indians to the UK. Sunak’s litmus test as far as ties with New Delhi are concerned lies in rescuing and cementing the proposed understanding.

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