LONDON (AP) — Former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak She is set to become Britain’s first prime minister after being elected on Monday to lead the ruling Conservative Party, which is looking for a safe pair of hands to guide the country through economic and political turmoil.
The challenges facing Britain’s third prime minister this year are enormous: He must try to revive an economy headed for recession and reeling from his predecessor’s brief, disastrous experiment. In libertarian economics, it is trying to unite a demoralized and divided party that is lagging far behind the opposition in opinion polls.
“The United Kingdom is a great country, but there is no doubt that we face a profound economic challenge,” Sunak said in his first public statement.
“We need stability and unity now and I will make it my priority to bring our party and our country together,” said Mr Sunack, who at 42 is Britain’s youngest prime minister for 200 years.
Sunak was the first British Prime Minister with South Asian roots and its first Hindu leader – a milestone for a country with an extensive colonial past, and one that is still contested.
Chunak took over from Lis Truss, who stepped down last week as the party chief, elected on the main Hindu festival of Diwali. After 45 hectic days. His only remaining rival, Benny Mordant, conceded and withdrew after failing to reach the nomination threshold of 100 Conservative lawmakers needed to stay in the race.
Sunak will now be asked by King Charles III to form a government and become prime minister in a handover of power from Truss on Tuesday.
Sunak, who lost to Truss in the Conservative election over the summer to replace former prime minister Boris Johnson, looked certain to win when party members opted for a tax cut stimulus over his warning to rein in inflation.
Truss admitted last week that his plans could not be met – but his efforts have fueled market turmoil and worsened inflation at a time when millions of Britons were already struggling with rising debt costs and rising energy and food prices.
The party is now desperate for someone to right the ship after months of chaos – under Truss’ short tenure and Johnson’s end.
As finance minister, Sunak steered the economy through the coronavirus pandemic, winning praise for financial support for laid-off workers and shuttered businesses.
He now faces the huge challenge of calming markets and trying to control inflation at a time of weak government finances, a poor economic outlook and a wave of strikes. Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, appointed by Truss 10 days ago, is due to deliver an emergency budget statement on October 31 – if Sunak keeps him in the job.
Britain faces wider economic problems stemming from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the country’s exit from the European Union in 2020. Sunak was a staunch supporter of Brexit.
Moments after winning the race on Monday, Sunak was booed by conservative lawmakers in a packed private meeting in Parliament.
Former cabinet minister Chris Grayling said Sunak urged the party to “come together and fix the issues facing the country” and received a “thrilling reception”.
Thérèse Coffey, who was Truce’s deputy prime minister, said the whole party should now support Sunak.
“We have to go after him,” she said.
But Sunak still faces resentment from Johnson’s supporters for leaving the government in July, which helped topple the then leader. His background as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and his wife’s vast wealth — she is the daughter of an Indian billionaire — also fueled a sense of disconnection from the struggles of ordinary people.
Truss’s proposal for aggressive tax cuts paid for by government borrowing weakened the pound, drove up the cost of government debt and home mortgages, and he took power after an emergency banking intervention. Truss executed a series of U-turns and replaced his Treasury chief, but faced a backlash from lawmakers in his party that eroded his authority.
In the lightning-quick race to replace him, Sunak’s position was strengthened after Johnson’s dramatic exit from the race. On Sunday night, he ended a short-lived, high-profile bid to return to the prime ministership three months ago amid ethics scandals.
The prospect of Johnson’s return threw an already divided Conservative Party into further turmoil. He led the party to a landslide election victory in 2019, but his premiership was marred by scandals over money and ethics that eventually became too much for the party to bear.
He threw in the towel Late on Sunday he insisted he was “well placed to deliver a Conservative victory” at the next national election.
The turmoil in the Conservative Party is fueling calls for a national election. Under Britain’s parliamentary system, it doesn’t have to until the end of 2024Although the government has the power to call someone sooner.
It seems unlikely at the moment. Polls suggest an election would be disastrous for the Conservatives, with left-wing Labor winning with a large majority.
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said the Conservative Party was “not out of the woods yet” after electing Sunak.
“Certainly the voters, maybe give Rishi Sunak a bit of a bounce, give Liz Truss a bit of credit for not being, and of course love the whole Conservative Party,” he said. “So I don’t expect it to make a huge difference in the polls.”
Associated Press writer Danica Girga contributed to this story.
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