Rishi Sunak was seen as Boris Johnson’s natural heir, until he turned on the prime minister who put him in charge of Britain’s economy.
The former Treasury chief, who quit earlier this month after questioning Johnson’s competence and ethics, is one of the two final contenders to replace Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister - but he faces fierce opposition from Johnson and his allies, who consider him a turncoat.
Either Sunak or Liz Truss, who has led the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as foreign secretary, will be chosen in a ballot of 180,000 Conservative members to be the party’s new leader. The winner will be announced Sept. 5 and will automatically become Britain’s new prime minister.
At 42, Sunak would be the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years and the country’s first South Asian leader.
Sunak was born in Southampton, on England’s south coast, in 1980 to Indian parents who were both born in East Africa. He grew up in a middle-class family, his father a family doctor and his mother a pharmacist. He has described how his parents saved to pay for a private education, and he attended Winchester College, one of Britain’s toniest and most expensive boarding schools.
There, he mingled with the elite. Rivals recently dug up a clip from a 2001 TV documentary about the class system in which the 21-year-old Sunak said he had “friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper class, I have friends who are, you know, working class _ well, not working class.”
Philosophy, politics and economics
After high school Sunak studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University - the degree of choice for future prime ministers - then got an MBA at Stanford University.
He worked for the investment bank Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager and lived in the US, where he met his wife, Akshata Murthy. They have two daughters.
Returning to Britain, Sunak was elected to Parliament for the safe Tory seat of Richmond, in Yorkshire, in 2015 and served in several junior ministerial posts before being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer by Johnson early in 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
An instinctive low-tax politician who idolises former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he nonetheless forked out billions in government money to keep people and businesses afloat during the pandemic.
His furlough program, which paid the salaries of millions of workers when they were temporarily laid off, made him the most popular member of the government - a status “Dishy Rishi” burnished with slick social media messages that stressed his own brand more than the government’s.
Sunak’s sure-footedness has wobbled over the years. Critics said a campaign to get people to eat in restaurants after lockdown restrictions were eased in the summer of 2020 contributed to another wave of COVID-19.
Questions about wealth, taxes
He also has faced questions about his wealth and finances. His wife is the daughter of the billionaire founder of Indian tech giant Infosys, and the couple is worth 730 million pounds ($877 million), according to the Sunday Times Rich list. In April it emerged that Murthy did not pay UK tax on her overseas income.
The status was legal but it looked bad at a time when Sunak was raising the taxes of millions of Britons. Sunak also was criticized for holding onto his American Green Card _ which signifies an intent to settle in the US _ for two years after he became Britain’s finance minister. Sunak was cleared of wrongdoing, but the revelations still hurt.
Sunak also was fined by police, along with Johnson and more than 80 others, for attending a party in the prime minister’s office in 2020 that broke coronavirus lockdown rules. He said he had attended inadvertently and briefly.
Sunak’s leadership campaign has been the most professional of any contender, from a slick launch video to a coterie of aides to marshal support.
He has depicted himself as the candidate of grown-up decisions and fiscal probity, calling rivals’ tax-cutting plans reckless and vowing to get inflation under control. He frequently mentions his political idol, Thatcher, but has nonetheless been cast by rivals as a left-wing, tax-and-spend politician, and has been subjected to mudslinging by Johnson’s allies.
Sunak is a popular candidate among Tory lawmakers, but now must win over the wider party, where his slick image could be an asset, or a liability.
Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, says Sunak “has got the demeanour of a daytime chat show host.”
“He’s plausible, he’s glib,” Fielding said. “He’s very like (former Prime Minister) David Cameron in that regard. He’s plausible, and yet somehow you think you’re being lied to.”
Liz Truss, a Margaret Thatcher fan
Fans of Liz Truss think she is the new Iron Lady.
Britain’s foreign secretary is one of the two final contenders to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister.
If Truss wins, she would become Britain’s third female prime minister. She has forged her image in homage to the first, Margaret Thatcher.
Truss has posed in a British Army tank in Eastern Europe, evoking an image of Thatcher during the Cold War. In a televised leadership debate this week, Britain’s top diplomat sported a pussy-bow blouse eerily similar to one the late prime minister used to wear.
Truss, 46, is a favourite among many Conservatives, who revere Thatcher above all other leaders. Critics say it’s an empty homage and believe Truss lacks the gravitas to lead the country amid economic turbulence and a European war.
As foreign secretary, Truss has been front and centre in Britain’s support for Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia over the invasion of its neighbour. She also has figured prominently in the UK’s feud with the European Union over post-Brexit trade arrangements.
Her pugnacious approach - along with her promises to slash taxes and boost defence spending - have made her the favourite of the party’s strongly eurosceptic right wing.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Truss said she was “the only person who can deliver the change we need on the economy - in line with true Conservative principles - and the only person capable of stepping up and leading the response to Ukraine and the increased security threat that the free world faces.”
'Dogmatist and a wooden public speaker'
But opponents criticise her as a dogmatist and a wooden public speaker, and note that she has not always been a true-blue Tory.
Born in Oxford in 1975, Truss is the daughter of a math professor and a nurse who took her on anti-nuclear and anti-Thatcher protests as a child, where she recalled shouting: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - out, out out!”
Truss attended a public high school in Leeds, northern England, and then studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, where she briefly belonged to the centrist Liberal Democrats and called for the abolition of the monarchy.
She worked as an economist for energy giant Shell and telecommunications firm Cable and Wireless, and for a right-of-centre think tank while becoming involved in Conservative politics and espousing free-market Thatcherite views. She ran unsuccessfully for Parliament twice before being elected to represent the eastern England seat of Southwest Norfolk in 2010.
Truss is married to Hugh O’Leary, with whom she has two teenage daughters.
From 'Remain' to pro-Brexit
In Britain’s 2016 referendum on whether to leave the European Union, Truss backed the losing “remain” side. But she has served in Johnson’s staunchly pro-Brexit government as trade secretary and then foreign secretary, and has won the support of the Conservative Party’s most fervent Brexiteers.
Her record as foreign secretary has drawn mixed reviews. Many praise her firm response to the invasion of Ukraine, and she secured the release of two British nationals jailed in Iran where her predecessors had failed. But EU leaders and officials hoping she would bring a softer tone to the UK’s relations with the bloc have been disappointed.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, says the fact that eurosceptics adore Truss, while suspecting Sunak of pro-EU views _ despite that fact that he backed “leave” in the referendum _ shows the importance of image over substance in politics. “His image doesn’t fit that of a Brexiteer whereas hers does,” Bale said. “There’s a kind of presumption that if you’re a bit of a smoothiechops who moves easily in international circles you must be a remainer, and if you’re someone who tells it like it is to Johnny Foreigner then you’re obviously a (true) Brexiteer.”
Sunak vs Truss: How do they differ on policy?
Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak wants to tackle surging inflation and Britain’s pandemic debts. Rival Liz Truss wants immediate tax cuts.
The economy will be a key battleground in the coming weeks, after Sunak and Truss emerged Wednesday as the runoff contenders to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But they have other differences, notably over climate change:
Former finance minister Sunak is vowing to stick with a host of recent tax rises in a bid to balance the books following record government borrowing during the Covid pandemic.
He has said curbing inflation, which is at a 40-year high, is his priority and criticised Truss’s “fairytale” plans on tax.
Foreign Secretary Truss has accused Sunak of pulling Britain to the brink of recession, and vowed to “start cutting taxes from day one” including corporation tax paid by businesses.
She also wants to review the Bank of England’s mandate to set interest rates.
● Cost of living
As chancellor of the exchequer, Sunak in May implemented a 15 billion pound ($18 billion) package of support to help Britons through the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.
However, his leadership rivals criticised it as insufficient, with energy prices set to surge anew in October.
Truss has vowed to use economic growth fuelled by her promised tax cuts as the primary way to tackle the crisis.
Truss backed remaining in the European Union in Britain’s 2016 referendum, before becoming a zealous convert to the Brexit cause.
Since December, she has led negotiations with Brussels over subsequent frictions.
She is pushing new legislation that would unilaterally rewrite Britain’s post-Brexit commitments to the EU over Northern Ireland, which opponents say breaches international law.
Sunak, a rising Tory star in 2016, came out early for Brexit, to the despair of then leader David Cameron.
He has said he backs the controversial proposals on the “Northern Ireland Protocol” and, as chancellor, promoted “freeports” around Britain as one way of profiting from Brexit.
Under pressure to curb waves of migrants crossing the Channel from France, the Conservative government has been pushing a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement.
The policy, which has been stalled by legal action, is backed by both the candidates. Truss has called it “completely moral”.
But Sunak has faced anonymous briefings to newspapers claiming he opposed it in cabinet over its 120 million pound costs.
Sunak has declined to set “arbitrary targets” on military spending following the war in Ukraine.
But he views NATO’s target - for member states to spend 2.0 percent of GDP on defence - as a “floor and not a ceiling”.
He wants Britain’s defence budget to rise to 2.5 percent of GDP “over time”. Truss has been more forthright, this week committing to spending 3.0 percent by 2030.
Sunak has vowed to stick with Britain’s legally binding targets to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
He would maintain “green levies” on energy bills earmarked to help the renewable sector grow.
Truss has vowed to scrap the levies, but says she is committed to the 2050 target.
What’s next in process to replace Johnson?
New prime minister will be announced on September 5
Conservative party lawmakers on Wednesday chose former finance minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to go through to the final stage — a vote by around 200,000 party members. The winner will inherit a parliamentary majority and will become the next prime minister.
July-September: The two candidates campaign among party members to secure their votes. The Conservative Party will host 12 hustings events around the country between July 28 and August 31, including in Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham and London. Party members who joined on or before June 3 are eligible to vote in the contest and will receive their ballot papers between August 1-5. Members can vote by post or online. The last vote received is the one that counts if there is any duplication.
September 5: The party announces who has been elected by members as the new leader. The candidate with the most votes wins.
September 6: Johnson is expected to leave office. He will go to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to Queen Elizabeth.