Will Rishi Sunak be the next prime minister of Britain? More to the point, will the White-majority Conservative Party allow him to become prime minister? Or with former PM Boris Johnson having pulled out of the race, admitting that the time is not right, will the Conservative Party establishment find yet another loser whose skin colour is not White, to mount an anti-Sunak challenge? Penny Mordaunt, someone?
Today, Diwali could well prove to be the most important Monday in Sunak’s life, a Hindu Punjabi who was born in Britain after his parents emigrated from East Africa in the 1960s; his paternal grandparents moved from undivided Punjab to Kenya in 1935 where his grandfather worked as a clerk, while his maternal grandfather emigrated to Tanganyika (as Tanzania was then known) — which also means that these African nations have an equal claim to the pride that Indians will feel if he actually makes it to 10, Downing Street.
The Guido Fawkes political website on Saturday noted that Sunak had become the first to break through the 100 MP threshold, which meant that he could contest for the Conservative Party leadership — and for the job of the PM. That’s exactly what he finally did, Sunday, throwing his hat in the ring.
By Monday, the pound, which had been flailing under Truss’ prime ministership like one of the three witches in Macbeth, had gained.
Even Johnson, who cut short his Caribbean holiday and returned to London over the weekend to check out the prime ministerial sweepstakes, knows his time is up.
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Sunak’s suited for the top job
Certainly, Sunak has the potential of becoming a latter-day Manmohan Singh. As finance ministers, they both steered their nations out of a deep crisis – Sunak successfully battled the Covid crisis that hit Britain with some ingenious schemes, while Manmohan Singh bailed India out of the balance of payments mess in the early 1990s, when India was forced to mortgage its gold with the Bank of England.
Sunak is seen as the safest pair of hands in Britain today. Even in the race against Liz Truss, where he got just 42 per cent of the vote, he repeatedly told her not to try and balance the Budget by cutting taxes from the rich at a time like this, when the world was just coming off Covid, without figuring out where the finances would come from.
In fact as Chancellor of the Exchequer during Covid, Sunak went against traditional Conservative Party logic by borrowing heavily from the state, as much as 330 billion pounds for an emergency mass job retention scheme which allowed employees to claim 80 per cent of their wages when they weren’t able to work during the pandemic;
Another scheme meant to instigate consumer demand, called “Eat Out to Help Out”, subsidised food and drink at participating restaurants. It was a win-win project that kept business going and at the same time ensured that nobody really starved.
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What’s stopping Sunak’s rise
On Diwali eve, Sunak and Johnson are believed to have held face to face talks. Clearly, Johnson has seen the light. This is a dire time for Britain, not business as usual as the old chap would have preferred it. But the Indian-origin Sunak is clearly taking no chances. As the Hindi saying goes, Sunak is “blowing at every step he takes” (phoonk-phoonk ke kadam rakhna), perhaps wanting to make sure that he is what both MPs and the party membership really want this time.
Last time around too it had seemed as if he had the support of the party MPs. Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab had said, “I know that Rishi has got what it takes…to provide the leadership that we need to steer the country through tough economic times.”
Jeremy Hunt, who became Liz Truss’ chancellor of the exchequer, had then said of Sunak, “Rishi is one of the most decent straight people with the highest standards of integrity that I have ever met in British politics. And that’s why I would be proud to have him as my next prime minister.”
But there were those who accused Sunak of being “treacherous” to Boris Johnson and bringing down the Conservative Party government. Admittedly, his resignation as Chancellor in July, minutes after then health secretary Sajid Javid – of Pakistani origin, who is today voting again for Sunak as PM – triggered the end. It is said that Sunak and Javid resigned because Johnson ignored sexual abuse accusations against one of his MPs and still elevated him to an influential job. Johnson denies the charges.
As for the allegations of tax evasion against Sunak’s wife Akshata, daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murty — she finally paid the tax so as to shut down the gossip that was beginning to affect Sunak’s politics. But the fact remains that Akshata is not a British citizen; as an Indian, and therefore a non-domicile, there was never any need for her to pay tax on her inheritance which is made-in-India. Akshata Murty’s money is not Rishi Sunak’s money. British law accepts that.
So why beat up on Rishi Sunak for his wife’s wealth? Britain’s double standards have been showing for a while.
In a few days from now, the UK will have a new PM. Question is, will a non-beef eating, non-alcohol drinking, believer in the Hindu faith — whom all of India is likely supporting — be good enough for England? Or will the colour of Rishi Sunak’s skin trump his obvious top credentials for Britain’s top job?
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)