LONDON — Rishi Sunak’s campaign had a simple slogan when he ran for prime minister of Britain earlier this year: “Ready for Rishi.”
The answer was: No, sorry.
He competed against Liz Truss to lead Britain’s Conservative Party after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his scandal-induced resignation in July. Now Sunak will have another chance at winning the top job, with Truss’s own resignation triggering a contest after just six weeks in power.
His strongest challenger appeared late Saturday to be former prime minister Boris Johnson, whose forced resignation kicked off Britain’s current bout of political chaos. Johnson flew back Saturday from a vacation in the Dominican Republic to a mixed reception as he sought support for a comeback.
Supporters of Sunak, the favorite of bookmakers, say he easily crossed the threshold to secure the backing of 100 Conservative politicians, which now sees him through to the next round of the party’s internal leadership race as more of his fellow lawmakers pledge their backing and plan his potential elevation.
As of late Saturday, the Guardian’s count of publicly declared Conservative members of Parliament gave Sunak 126, compared with 54 for Johnson and 24 for Penny Mordaunt. The BBC’s count gave Sunak 128, Johnson 53 and Mordaunt 23.
While Johnson has made no announcement of his candidacy, he has reportedly reached out to members for support. Johnson supporters claimed to have crossed the 100-vote threshold, but news organizations keeping track were skeptical. If Johnson gets to a hundred and rank-and-file Conservative Party members vote, he is expected to perform better than either of his opponents.
If ultimately elected, Sunak, 42, would become the country’s first prime minister of South Asian descent. He was born in Southampton, England, to parents of Indian origin who had emigrated from East Africa.
“It is abundantly clear that Rishi Sunak has what it takes to match the challenges we face — he is the right person to lead our Party,” former cabinet minister Sajid Javid said in his announcement of support.
“He has the talent, integrity, and humility necessary to provide us with a fresh start and a steady hand,” Conservative lawmaker Gavin Williamson tweeted, as others hailed Sunak’s “competence” and “economic foresight.”
Loyalists point out that during the previous leadership contest against Truss this summer, his candidacy received the most support from his parliamentary colleagues. And many of his economic ideas have turned out to be prescient, those backers say.
Not all are so gushing.
His critics contend that he betrayed Johnson, his old boss, when he resigned as finance minister in early July. That led to the collapse of the cabinet soon afterward, and then Johnson’s downfall.
Speculation of Johnson’s return to the political fray have already laid bare the intense divide in opinion on him among politicians and much of the weary British public.
Behind Sunak and Johnson, is Mordaunt, a middle-level cabinet minister seeking to become a household name, but her numbers remain low.
Mordaunt said she was encouraged to run by colleagues who wanted a “fresh start,” but she is viewed by some Conservatives as a compromise candidate for politicians in the Sunak and Johnson camps who cannot quite bring themselves to back a rival.
A candidate needs to gain more than 100 votes from the party’s members of Parliament to progress to the next round. There are 357 Conservative lawmakers in office at the moment.
Given the high bar, it’s possible that only one individual secures that number, meaning that a new prime minister could be installed at 10 Downing Street on Monday, when nominations close. If more than one candidate crosses the threshold, Conservative Parliament members would take “indicative” votes to try to narrow the field. If the field remains divided, they will take an online vote of party members.
Educated at one of Britain’s most prestigious private schools, like Johnson, he has a glittering résumé, with degrees from the University of Oxford and Stanford University and a stint at the Goldman Sachs investment bank. One of the wealthiest British politicians, he is married to the Indian tech heiress Akshata Murthy, whose tax affairs caused the former finance minister some political discomfort during his leadership campaign in the summer.
And a video clip from a 2007 BBC documentary, in which Sunak suggests he doesn’t have any “working-class friends,” is recirculating online as some Britons frown upon the array of upper-class Conservative contenders.
Nonetheless, he remains popular among politicians of his own party, although he fares less well among the Conservative Party’s national membership, who favored Truss in September by 57.4 percent to 42.6 percent.
After George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter movement swept much of the world in 2020, Sunak spoke out about the racism he has faced in public life and about the struggles his family overcame as immigrants to Britain. He also has publicly championed his Hindu faith, swearing on a revered Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, when he took office.
To his supporters, Sunak is a steady hand on the economic tiller, as he correctly predicted the market crisis sparked by Truss’s policies when she slashed taxes and sent the British pound plummeting. He called Truss’s proposed economic reforms “fairy tale” economics before she took office, an assessment that is likely to lend credence to his image of fiscal responsibility.
A blot on his record, however, is his link to the “Partygate” scandal that toppled Johnson’s government. Like his boss, Sunak was fined by police while in office for attending parties at 10 Downing Street while Britons were under severe government-imposed coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Opposition parties including Labour are calling for a general election so that the exasperated public can have a say in who becomes the next British prime minister.
“The truth is [that] just passing around the prime minister job, the chancellor job, like it’s some sort of game of ‘pass the parcel,’ is not going to provide the country with the leadership and the stability that we desperately need,” Sunak’s former opposite number, Labour Party shadow finance minister Rachel Reeves, told the BBC on Friday.