(The Article was first published on 20 July 2022 and is being republished from The Quint's archives as Rishi Sunak won the Conservative Party leadership race, becoming the first non-white UK prime minister.)
Rishi Sunak was on Monday, 24 October, became Britain's first Indian-origin prime minister after Conservative Party MP Penny Mordaunt withdrew from the leadership race, soon after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulled out of the contest.
Sunak, 42, will succeed Liz Truss who announced last week that she was resigning. Sunak will be Britain’s third leader in less than two months.
With Mordaunt's decision to withdraw from the race, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer will become the first non-white prime minister of the UK.
He is certainly not as popular as he used to be during the peak of the pandemic in the UK. Sunak’s failure to resolve the cost-of-living crisis, his decision to increase taxes, and the revelation of his wife Akshata Murthy’s non-domicile status that allowed her to save millions on taxes in foreign earnings, have together dented a reputation that made him the most liked minister in the Boris Johnson cabinet.
Nevertheless, he had it quite far, thanks to the support of MPs from the Conservative Party. How did he manage to do it? Here, we look at two factors – his attitude towards the lockdown imposed by the Johnson government, and his 'nice guy' approach to politics.
Jobs, Jobs, and Jobs
During the first COVID-19-induced lockdown in the UK, Sunak was obsessed with jobs.
When Britain was enduring its first lockdown, few ministers spoke up with regards to the loosening of restrictions to prevent the economy from entering into a recession.
A national lockdown was initiated in the country on 23 March 2020. And despite the government appearing to be fully united in its war against COVID-19, there were some ministers who wanted the lockdown lifted in a matter of weeks.
Some of these ministers included Home Secretary Priti Patel, who was worried about the increasing rates of domestic violence, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who wanted children back in school, and Sunak himself.
On the other side were ministers like Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whose first priority was to prevent a surge of cases to protect the National Health Service from being flooded with patients.
Sunak kept emphasising that protecting people from the virus and from unemployment cannot be treated as a zero-sum game. In a press conference on 14 April, he said:
"It's not a case of choosing between the economy and public health – common sense tells us that doing so would be self-defeating. The absolute priority must be to focus all of our resources, not just of the state, but of businesses, and of all of you at home as well, in a collective national effort to beat this virus."Rishi Sunak, 14 April 2020
Whenever the cabinet met, Sunak pushed for the gradual reopening of the economy. Numbers released by the Office for Budget Responsibility and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research highlighted the extent of unemployment that the UK could be witnessing because of the lockdown. A report by the latter stated that the number of unemployed could rise to 6 million, which is about 20 percent of the entire country’s workforce.
This did not mean that he did not take the lockdown seriously, as is clear from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), which paid 80 percent of employees' wages for the hours they could work during the lockdown. The scheme started in March 2020, and while it was supposed to end in April 2021, Sunak extended it till 30 September. The scheme was one of his big success stories as chancellor.
Nevertheless, by May 2020, Tories and their donors had started to voice their concerns about the lockdown more loudly, arguing that the medicine can’t be more harmful than the cure. And Sunak was the one who took their considerations with utmost seriousness.
He constantly told the Tory backbenchers that he was as frustrated as them about the lockdown. According to Sunak’s biographer, at a conference call, he told them, “Somehow Greece and Italy are opening up. This country can’t be the only place in the world where people can’t go and have a drink in the pub.”
Sunak even supported a modification of the two-metre rule, according to which people had to remain socially distanced by a distance of at least two metres. The chancellor agreed with the backbenchers that the limit should be reduced to one metre, which would, according to his calculations, allow 75 percent of pubs to open, compared to the 25 percent that was the reality under the two-metre rule.
One of the MPs in the conference of backbenchers reportedly said after the meeting that Sunak was “a real star and incredibly well-briefed… He understands the need to get Britain back to work,” as quoted by Ashcroft in his book, Going for Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak.
A combination of the Tories’ admiration for his eagerness to open the economy and the public’s appreciation of the CJRS scheme made Sunak the most popular minister in the British government. People had “such a good view of him” because that (the CJRS) is “what everyone knows him for now.”
Even Piers Morgan, the presenter of 'Good Morning Britain,' said in June 2020, "I wish this guy was Prime Minister. Smart, confident, authoritative, empathetic, realistic & with a great grasp of detail. He’s in a totally different league to Boris Johnson or any other Govt minister."
Nice Guy Rishi
"I haven't ever seen him lose his temper or use a swear word… If he gets depressed or angry, he doesn’t really show that, even to people he speaks privately to,” said William Hague, Leader of the Opposition for the Conservative Party from 1997 to 2001.
Whether he actually is one or he has carefully cultivated it, Sunak is the 'nice guy' of the Conservative Party. Throughout the pandemic, he was perceived, by his colleague and by the media, as a humble guy who genuinely cared about the people of the country.
Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O'Grady told the Financial Times that Sunak "does have emotional intelligence. It's a different style, without the sense of superiority that some have."
Sunak's give-it-all attitude was widely admired. An insider at Downing Street, writes Ashcroft, admired Sunak’s ability to absorb huge volumes of detail, and that he always "takes the long brief instead of the short one."
Sources in the treasury revealed to Ashcroft that Sunak was just not eating during the first lockdown, and was beginning to look "thin and faint."
At his popularity's peak, the British people loved him. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme, to support and create jobs in the hospitality industry, another one of his greatest hits, proved how much he cared for the people. Pubs started coming up with posters and dishes like 'Dishi Rishi, Legend' or 'Low VAT! Low fat! Delishy Dishi Rishi Burger.' Eaters started posting photos and tweets of their ‘Risheipts’ when they ate out.
Within the media, The Telegraph, which is usually not soft on British politicians, ran an article in which the author, in his admiration for Sunak, wrote, "It can at least be said that he generally strikes the right tone… His calmness is itself calming."
The article, published on 8 April 2020, was headlined, 'On another day of darkness, Rishi Sunak offered at least one glimmer of hope.'
Is Sunak as prime minister another glimmer of hope that the country wants and needs? Guess we’ll find out by 5 September.