PROFILE | Rishi Sunak: Britain’s embattled Conservative leader

PROFILE | Rishi Sunak: Britain’s embattled Conservative leader

Rishi Sunak is seeking his own public mandate at next month’s general election having been installed as Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister by his own colleagues in parliament.

The 44-year-old former financier was tasked with stabilising the UK economy, and his own notoriously fractious party, when he succeeded Liz Truss in October 2022 after her 49-day premiership imploded.

Rishi Sunak criticised for lacking political nous

Sunak has succeeded up to a point on the former but failed to stop bitter Tory infighting, while polls say he is one of the UK’s most unpopular leaders ever and likely to lose the July 4 vote.

“The more people see of Sunak, the less they like him in some ways,” Tim Bale, author of a book about the right-wing Conservatives since Brexit, told AFP on Sunak’s first anniversary as premier last year.

Since then Sunak has had little to celebrate, lurching from one failed leadership reset to another as he has unsuccessfully tried to claw back support from Keir Starmer’s resurgent Labour party.

A recent poll even put the anti-immigration Reform UK party of Nigel Farage just ahead of the Tories.

Sunak has been criticised for lacking political nous, particularly after he left the 80th anniversary of D-Day events early, causing widespread outrage.

He has apologised repeatedly since and even had to deny that he was on the verge of quitting before polling day.

‘Dishy Rishi’

The privately wealthy Sunak has struggled to connect with regular voters struggling with a cost-of-living crisis.

He was roundly mocked for suggesting he had an austere childhood because his family did not have satellite television, while his interactions with voters have often seemed awkward.

His current political difficulties are a far cry from his rapid rise to power, becoming Britain’s youngest prime minister of modern times at age 42, as well as the first of South Asian descent.

The observant Hindu was born in Southampton on England’s south coast on May 12, 1980 to a family doctor father and mother who ran a local pharmacy.

Rishi Sunak’s grandparents were from Punjab in northern India and emigrated to Britain from eastern Africa in the 1960s, arriving with “very little”, he has said.

Sunak was educated at the exclusive private Winchester College, then Oxford and Stanford universities.

During his run for the Tory leadership, a video emerged of a 21-year-old Sunak talking about his friends.

“I have friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper-class, I have friends who are, you know, working-class,” he says, before adding quickly: “Well, not working-class.”

After making millions in finance, Sunak won the safe and overwhelmingly white Conservative seat of Richmond in Yorkshire, northern England, in 2015.

His Instagram-friendly profile earned him the media nickname of “Dishy Rishi”.

Theresa May gave Sunak his first job in government in January 2018, making him a junior minister for local government, parks and troubled families.

An early backer of Brexit, he took over as chancellor of the exchequer in February 2020 – a baptism of fire for the Tory rising star as the Covid pandemic erupted.

The details-oriented policy wonk was forced to craft an enormous economic support package at breakneck speed, which he regularly touts as one of his proudest achievements in politics.

Wealthy wife

The pandemic sullied his squeaky clean reputation, though, after he received a police fine for breaching Covid rules by joining a birthday gathering for then-prime minister Boris Johnson at Downing Street.

Sunak also faced difficult questions about the tax affairs of his wife Akshata Murty, whose father Narayana Murthy is the billionaire co-founder of information technology group Infosys.

In early 2022, newspapers reported that she had non-domiciled status, meaning she had not been paying UK taxes on her Infosys returns.

The news hit Sunak’s approval ratings and Murty announced that she would pay UK taxes on her global income.

The Sunaks met while studying in California and have two young daughters, along with a photogenic dog.

He insists his own family’s experience, and that of his wife, are a “very Conservative” story of hard work and aspiration.

In July 2022, Sunak quit as finance minister, helping to trigger Johnson’s resignation after one scandal too many and public anger at the government’s Covid response.

Many Tories have never forgiven Sunak and have harped against his leadership from the sidelines.

He insists only he has a “clear plan” backed by “bold action” to change Britain but voters look set to limit his time in office to less than two years.

By Garrin Lambley © Agence France-Presse