UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Reuters

‘Sun’ak rises on the British empire

If one discounts William Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at the age of 24, Rishi Sunak is the youngest to have occupied this office.

NEW DELHI: The dizzying and meteoric rise of Rishi Sunak in Britain’s political firmament is sometimes overlooked by an excessive focus on his ethnicity. It was only seven years ago that he entered the House of Commons as an MP. If one discounts William Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at the age of 24, Rishi Sunak is the youngest to have occupied this office. Unlike most other prime ministers, Sunak has not even sat on the Opposition benches. He is also, if such records are relevant to the trajectory of politics, possibly the wealthiest Prime Minister in the country’s history.

Of course, there is no ignoring that he is the first person of colour to occupy 10 Downing Street – a great tribute to the long way Britain has come to becoming a multicultural and liberal society. Those who believed it was the colour of his skin that led to his defeat by Liz Truss in the election to the Conservative Party leadership some weeks ago, had clearly overstated the case. In the end it was Truss’ reckless economic policy, which roiled the markets, led to the resignation of her finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng, and saw her popularity plummet, which undid her. Sunak, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, had warned all along that Truss’ neoliberal tax slashing ways would add billions to the deficit and result in spiralling interest rates – which is exactly what happened.

With Boris Johnson ruling himself out for a second term and Penny Mordaunt dropping out of the race, Sunak was the only and natural choice for the job. The task before him is truly immense. In the short term, he will need to keep one eye on the economy and the other on a deeply fractious Conservative Party, which badly needs to pull itself together if it wants a whisper of a chance at the next general election a couple of years from now. The first is a potentially difficult job as it will mean putting forward a plan that involves tax hikes and spending cuts, the kind of programme that Tory MPs are reflexively opposed to.

In India, the news about Sunak’s ascension has been met with a mixture of pride, disbelief and a string of memes. What is less important though is not whether ‘the Empire has struck back’ or whether ‘colonialism has been reversed’, but more mundane matters like getting the stalled Free Trade Agreement quickly off the ground. It remains to be seen whether Sunak will provide a fresh impetus to secure the deal, which remains hobbled by differences about access for Indian skilled labour and the like. India has a favourable balance of trade with the UK, which remains an important partner. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested, there are still hitherto unexplored opportunities to use the historical ties to forge modern partnerships.

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