Briefing

Who is Rishi Sunak?

A new leader for the U.K. … again

Rishi Sunak is going to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom, following the blink-and-you'll-miss-it prime ministership of Liz Truss. Penny Mordaunt, Sunak's last remaining rival to lead the Conservative Party, withdrew from the race on Monday — a day after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson did the same

Sunak's rise to 10 Downing Street is historic: He'll be the first person of color to lead the United Kingdom. He is of Indian descent, and "grew up in the English port city of Southampton to immigrant parents who were born in East Africa," the Los Angeles Times notes. But there will be precious little time to bask in the accomplishment. "Inflation is at its highest in 40 years as the nation stares out at a dark winter of soaring energy costs," and the kingdom still hasn't found its footing after Brexit.

Who is Sunak, and how did he come to the precipice of the prime ministership? Here is everything you need to know:

He is a former investment banker

In addition to being the youngest prime minister of the modern era at 42, Sunak "is Britain's first hedge fund prime minister too," Ed Conway writes for Sky News. He apparently did pretty well in his earlier career as an investment banker: Sunak's rise to the prime ministership "will be the first time in history that the residents of Downing Street are richer than those of Buckingham Palace," The Washington Post reports. That might be useful for Sunak, Conway points out: Truss was undone when the markets plunged in response to her "mini-budget" that cut taxes on top earners and relied on deficit spending to jump-start growth. From that standpoint, the early returns are good for Sunak: "The news that Boris Johnson was pulling out of the leadership race was followed by a sudden rise in the value of the pound." That's a sign that the "markets have welcomed" Sunak.

He was a powerful figure under Johnson

Sunak served under Johnson as the chancellor of the Exchequer — the United Kingdom's title for the chief of the national treasury. That's an important post, seen by many as the second-most powerful job in government next to the prime minister. (Literally so: The chancellor lives at No. 11 Downing Street, right next door to the PM.) He spent his term "expanding the state, spending, and levels of taxation, against his instincts, to deal with the pandemic and Ukraine crisis," the BBC reported in July. But Sunak resigned from Johnson's cabinet, saying their respective approaches to managing the economy were "fundamentally too different." Sunak's resignation was seen as a major milestone on the road to Johnson's eventual resignation. But he praised Johnson on Monday, saying on Twitter that his predecessor "led our country through some of the toughest challenges we have ever faced, and then took on Putin and his barbaric war in Ukraine. We will always be grateful to him for that."

This is the second time this year he has run for PM

There is an irony to Sunak succeeding Truss as prime minister — it's only been a few weeks since he lost to her when she ascended to the job. But there is vindication as well: During the Conservative Party contest to succeed Johnson, Sunak "made some ominous forecasts about the tax-cutting policies favored by Truss, warning that by authorizing them she would increase borrowing to 'historic and dangerous levels' and add 'fuel to the fire' of rising costs," Fortune reported last month. Indeed, those fears were exactly what brought Truss down. But some observers predicted that might happen — "vanquished Rishi Sunak to wait in wings for Liz Truss to slip up," a headline blared in The Guardian on Sept. 6. He didn't have to wait long. 

He has a tough job ahead of him

Sunak arrives at 10 Downing Street "at an acutely difficult moment," The New York Times reports. It's difficult for his Conservative Party, which lags "behind the opposition Labour Party by more than 30 percentage points in polls." And more importantly, it's a difficult moment for the United Kingdom. His challenges include "how to support households squeezed by rising energy costs" while at the same time showing how his government "will keep borrowing in check, in an effort to restore Britain's fiscal credibility in markets." It's a tall order, and Sunak knows it. "There is no doubt we face profound economic challenges," he said in his first public remarks after winning leadership. "We now need stability and unity, and I will make it my utmost priority to bring my party and country together."

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