As we head into the final lap of the race for the next Prime Minister of Britain, 42 year old Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian origin, admits that he is “playing catch up” with his rival, Liz Truss. Latest polls show that Truss is the overwhelming favourite to win the contest for the top job among members of the Conservative party, who are voting for their next leader via ballots and online over the next few weeks.
A new YouGov opinion poll of party members shows Truss leading with 60% to Sunak’s 26% and 14% undecided or not voting. Nine out of ten of those polled said they had already decided who to vote for.
A survey of 1,003 party members, carried out by the Conservative Home website and published this week, put Truss on 58% and Sunak on 26%, with 12% saying they were undecided.
Sunak is a practising Hindu and took oath on the Bhagavad Gita when he became an MP. For many Britons of Indian origin, seeing him as Prime Minister will be an immense moment of pride.
But a new twist has emerged in the hotly fought contest. Prominent Indian-origin businessman and Conservative Party donor, Lord Rami Ranger, has said that Britain would be seen as racist if Sunak goes on to lose the Tory leadership election.
Rishi Sunak himself was quick to downplay the race factor. Speaking to ‘The Daily Telegraph’ in an interview, he said racism was not a factor in the vote.
“I was selected as a member of Parliament in Richmond … Our members rightly put merit above everything else. I’m sure when they are considering this question, they are just figuring out who is the best person to be Prime Minister ... Gender, ethnicity and everything else will have nothing to do with it,” he said
But one has to wonder — for someone who has been the favourite to lead the party among Tory MPs, why is that Rishi Sunak is not as popular among Tory members? Could it be, that deep down, they just aren’t ready for an Indian origin Prime Minister?
That however may be a simplistic explanation. When you look at the record of the Conservative party, it is much more diverse and inclusive today than it has ever been.
There are other Indian-origin MPs who have been elected and risen to top posts including Priti Patel, the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, Attorney General, Alok Sharma, Cabinet Office Minister who was in charge of the all important COP26 climate-change conference.
Sajid Javid, who is of Pakistani descent, has been the Chancellor, Home Secretary and most recently as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Iraqi-born Nadhim Zahawi is currently the UK Chancellor.
Sunak’s problems within the Conservative party, therefore, may stem from his own record, and not his race.
One of the reasons he is lagging in the race is his role in triggering Boris Johnson’s downfall and therefore his perceived disloyalty. It was Sunak’s resignation that had a domino effect in the cabinet and ultimately forced Boris Johnson to quit. Johnson is believed to be seething and has told his supporters that next prime minister must be “anyone but Rishi”.
As the Chancellor, Sunak first received huge praise for launching a £350 billion financial rescue package during the pandemic that helped keep millions of people afloat and also led to a tremendous rise in his personal poll ratings.
But then he faced criticism from within the party for tax increases to pay for the government support offered during the pandemic.
Sunak says he will cut taxes over a period of time whereas Truss has promised to cut taxes immediately, making her instantly popular among Tory members.
That criticism of Sunak becomes all the more glaring given his wealth and privileged background. At at a time when ordinary Britons are battling a cost of living crisis, high inflation at over 9%, his wealth, and that of his wife’s, has become a huge talking point.
In the Sunday Times Rich List 2022 ranking of the wealthiest people in the UK, Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty were placed 222nd, with a combined wealth of £730 million.
Born in 1980 in Southampton, Rishi Sunak attended a prestigious private school called Winchester College, where he was head boy and the editor of the school paper.
He later attended Oxford University to study philosophy, politics and economics.
After that, he pursued an MBA at Stanford University on a Fulbright scholarship. It was here that he met his future wife, Akshata Murthy, daughter of Infosys co-founder NR Nararyan Murthy. They have two daughters.
From 2001 to 2004, Rishi Sunak worked at Goldman Sachs, moving on to become a partner in two hedge funds, where he helped small British companies grow.
In 2015, he was elected as an MP from Richmond in Yorkshire on a Conservative party ticket. Sunak later became a junior minister in Theresa May’s government and was made chief secretary to the Treasury by Johnson in 2019. He got the big job as Chancellor or Finance minister in February 2020.
In 2001, he was interviewed along with his parents for the BBC documentary Middle Classes, during which he remarked, “I have friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper class, I have friends who are working class … well, not working class”
Needless to say, that has recently gone viral again.
His wife Akshata, a billionaire heiress, has come under scrutiny for her background and for avoiding high taxes in the UK, thanks to a law which allows non domiciles to skip taxes on income earned abroad. Following the controversy, Murty announced she would pay UK taxes on her global income, saying she didn’t want the issue “to be a distraction for my husband.”
Addressing this head on, Sunak recently said, “There is a commentary about my wife’s family’s wealth. I’m actually incredibly proud of what my parents-in-law built.”
Many analysts say Sunak has what it takes to lead the country and Sunak says he should be judged by his record in office and not his wealth. The odds are stacked against him at the moment but can he still turn it around? Watch this space.