With the likely exit of Boris Johnson as PM, will ‘Dishy Rishi’ make the cut?

Before ‘Partygate’ made Boris’ ouster imminent, Sunak was regarded as the frontrunner to replace Boris as leader of the Conservatives. However, of late, his popularity has slipped among Tory members who will make the final decision

Rishi Sunak is seen as a bit of a loner, operating in his own bubble and like Boris has no loyalty amongst the parliamentary party. In fact, his biggest champion is Boris whom he hopes to replace

Boris Johnson’s days as British Prime Minister are numbered. What is uncertain is whether it will be a matter of days, weeks or months before he is thrown out of 10 Downing Street by his own party. His would-be successors are already ‘on manoeuvres’ – as Westminster insiders call it, and it is only a matter of time before they begin campaigning in the open. Among them is one of Boris’ top lieutenants – Rishi Sunak, the Indian-origin Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The lies and deception have finally caught up with Boris, with the latest scandal of a ‘boozy’ party culture in the heart of Downing Street at a time when the rest of the country was in a COVID lockdown is the last nail in his coffin. Even as Boris apologised in Parliament for attending an ‘event’ in the Downing Street garden, a combined Opposition demanded his resignation.

Kier Starmar, leader of the Labour Party, insisted that it was in the ‘national interest’ for the prime minister to resign, saying with the “deceit and deception” he had lost the “moral authority” to lead the country.

It is not just the Opposition, even Conservative MPs who have been faced with a barrage of emails from their angry constituents, admit that ‘Partygate’ – as the scandal has been dubbed by the British press – has tarnished their government and Boris’ position is no longer tenable. They want him out well before his behaviour hurts the Tory Party any further.

Half a dozen Conservative MPs have publicly declared that they have written to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which organises Tory leadership contests, to say they have no confidence in the prime minister. Fifty-four Conservative MPs have to write letters to the Committee to trigger a vote.

Also read: Are Boris Johnson’s days at Downing Street numbered?

So, what are Sunak’s chances of becoming the first Indian-origin prime minister of the UK? The slick and smiley finance minister has certainly made his mark despite his relative inexperience. Considering that Sunak only became a MP for the first time from a very safe Conservative seat as recently as 2015, his rise to the second most important job in the country has been meteoric.

Born in Southampton, Sunak’s grandparents are originally from Punjab who migrated to East Africa and then to the UK in the 1960s. Son of doctor Yashvir and pharmacist Usha, Sunak was sent to Winchester, the prestigious private school which set him up to read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. He then went across the pond to Stanford for his MBA and joined the world of business and finance before entering professional politics.

He became an investment banker working for Goldman Sachs, then moved into hedge fund management and co-founded a large investment firm Theleme Partners in 2010, working with companies from Silicon Valley to Bangalore. He met his wife Akshata, daughter of Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy while he was studying at Stanford.

The couple married in 2009 in Bengaluru, but continued to live in California for a number of years before moving back to the UK. The couple have two young daughters Krishna and Anoushka.

Sunak was first appointed junior minister for local government in 2018 within three years of becoming an MP, but got his big break in February 2020, when the Pakistani-origin Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid suddenly resigned because of interference by Boris’ then powerful political aide Dominic Cummings.

The little-known Sunak was thrown into the deep end just as the UK went into a lockdown. It was his loyalty to Boris that got Sunak the Chancellorship, but it was his willingness to splash the cash that made him a household name.

Also read: Indian-origin UK minister Rishi Sunak scores over Boris in popularity ratings

Sunak’s unprecedented interventions in the economy, providing emergency financial support for millions of firms and workers, including the Job Retention Scheme in which the government paid 80 per cent of the wages of people who would have otherwise have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak, won him remarkable cross-party approval. His personal ratings soon outstripped that of Boris, with support for the way Sunak handled the pandemic remaining at a steady 60 per cent, while Boris’s approval rating sank to 43 per cent at the height of the pandemic.

Apart from a huge bailout package, it was his ‘out of the box’ thinking at a time of economic crisis that won him many admirers particularly his ‘Eat out to Help Out’ scheme.

The suave Sunak became the only other politician in the UK apart from Boris, known just by his first name. The personal marketing campaign for Brand Rishi – a first for any Chancellor of the Exchequer – did a slick job on social media platforms. Pictures of the 41-year-old politician looking thoughtful could easily have been advertisements for quality menswear and got him the title of ‘Dishy Rishi’.

Sunak has already begun his campaign and has started “to tap people on the shoulder and take soundings” both among MPs and external aides. The fact that he was conspicuous by his absence in Parliament as Boris made his apology is being seen as an attempt to distance himself from his mentor and ‘Partygate’. His somewhat lukewarm defence of Boris the following day is also touted as a sign of his intention to participate in any leadership contest.

At one time Sunak was the most well-liked politician in the country and his popularity with the public was the envy of all across Westminster. The ever-smiling and dapper Sunak with an aura of polished competence is a striking contrast to the crumpled buffoonery that Johnson has crafted for himself over the last 30 years in politics. Senior civil servants are impressed with Sunak, as he understands data and can see the big picture as well as the details.

For some time, before ‘Partygate’ made Boris’ ouster imminent, Sunak was regarded as the frontrunner to replace Boris as leader of the Conservatives. However, of late, his popularity has slipped among Tory members who will make the final decision. The return of inflation, the imminence of rise in taxes that he announced in the autumn budget and the expected hike in energy charges from April are all combining to make Sunak a less voter-friendly minister.

Sunak is seen as a bit of a loner, operating in his own bubble and like Boris has no loyalty amongst the parliamentary party. In fact, his biggest champion is Boris whom he hopes to replace. He is seen as a bit of an unknown quantity and some see his success as Chancellor as being in the right place at the right time.

Sunak’s inexperience is his biggest drawback. His youth, the recent entry and quick ascent in the Tory Party do not equip him for the cut and thrust of real politics. There are many other contenders for the top post who have been in the party much longer and when it comes to the crunch will fight much harder to get it.

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