Sunak triumphs to become UK’s new prime minister

LONDON: Britain’s incoming prime minister Rishi Sunak vowed Monday to bring “stability and unity” at a time of economic crisis, after he was named the beleaguered Conservatives’ new leader. Sunak, 42, a Hindu, will be the UK’s first prime minister of color after the premiership of Liz Truss imploded after just 44 days.

Truss will hold a final cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning before submitting her resignation to King Charles III, who will then appoint Sunak, Downing Street said. The new leader will make his first remarks to the nation from outside Number 10 around 11:35 am (1035 GMT). Penny Mordaunt, the last rival left in the party’s leadership race after Boris Johnson dramatically pulled out, failed to secure the necessary 100 nominations from her fellow MPs.

“Rishi Sunak is therefore elected as leader of the Conservative party,” senior backbencher Graham Brady said, as Mordaunt and Truss pledged their full support for Sunak. However, nearly five hours after Brady’s announcement, there was still no word from Johnson – even as Sunak urged his warring party to “unite or die”, according to Tory MPs present in a closed-doors meeting.

Addressing the public for the first time, Sunak said: “The United Kingdom is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge.” “We now need stability and unity and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together,” he said, appearing to rebuff calls from opposition parties for an early general election.

Just seven weeks after he lost out to Truss following Johnson’s own removal from office, Sunak pulled off a stunning reversal in fortunes, and is vowing to do the same for Britain on a platform of fiscal responsibility. But 62 percent of voters want a national election before the end of the year, pollster Ipsos said. Another poll by YouGov said Labour leader Keir Starmer was favored as the “best prime minister” in parliamentary 389 constituencies-while Sunak was favored in 127.

Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon, whose nationalist government in Edinburgh wants to hold an independence referendum next year, was among the first to congratulate Sunak. “I wish him well… notwithstanding our political differences,” she said. “That he becomes the first British Asian – indeed the first from any minority ethnic background – to become PM is a genuinely significant moment.”

The contest, triggered by Truss’ resignation on Thursday, had required candidates to secure the support of at least 100 Conservative MPs by 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Monday. Only Sunak made the threshold, Brady announced. Sunak, a wealthy descendant of immigrants from India and East Africa, had crossed that threshold by Friday night, and amassed nearly 200 public nominations – more than half the parliamentary Tory party.

Johnson’s withdrawal from the race – before he had even formally announced his candidacy – left cabinet member Mordaunt the only other declared contender. However she failed to garner the necessary support, putting an abrupt end to the contest. Sunak’s victory came on the day Hindus worldwide mark the start of the five-day festival of Diwali – a celebration of the victory of good over evil. When he was chancellor of the exchequer, in Nov 2020, Sunak marked the occasion by lighting oil lamps on the front step of the chancellor’s official residence at 11 Downing Street.

The Tories were forced into their second leadership contest since the summer due to Truss’s resignation following a disastrous market response to her tax-slashing budget plans. Johnson’s attempt to make an immediate return to Downing Street had raised the prospect of months of disarray and disunity within the ruling Conservatives. Critical backbench Tory MPs warned there could have been a wave of resignations under Johnson’s renewed leadership, which might have led to a general election. One is not due for at least two years.

Johnson cut short a Caribbean holiday to return to Britain on Saturday. But in a sign of his diminished political standing, he swiftly conceded late Sunday, admitting “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament”. “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” he said, while insisting he had secured the 100 nominations needed to progress. Sunak was quick to pay tribute to Johnson, tweeting: “I truly hope he continues to contribute to public life at home and abroad.”

Labour leaders said Sunak must face the country. “The Tories have crowned Rishi Sunak without him saying a word about what he would do as PM. He has no mandate, no answers and no ideas,” tweeted Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader. Anand Menon, politics professor at King’s College London, said Sunak becoming prime minister was a landmark. “To have, if we do, a prime minister of Indian origin is a really, really big deal,” he told BBC television shortly before the result was confirmed. But he noted a lack of general debate on Sunak’s roots. “In a sense… we seem to have normalized this.” – AFP

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