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Rishi Sunak As UK Prime Minister: A New Page In British History

Rishi Sunak will be Britain’s first non-white PM, reflecting the changing contours of British society. Much will depend on whether he succeeds in getting the country back on the rails.

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Rishi Sunak, centre, waves after winning the Conservative Party leadership contest
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Indian-origin Tory leader Rishi Sunak is all set to be Britain’s new Prime Minister with Penny Mordaunt failing to make the cut and Boris Johnson dropping out of the race on Sunday. The 42-year-old Sunak, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Boris Johnson’s cabinet will be Britain’s first  Prime Minister of colour reflecting the country’s current multicultural identity. He is also the first non-Christian chosen for the highest office. Sunak is a practising Hindu.

His anointment by the Conservative party members is a turning point in British history, something that would not have been possible even a decade ago. “It shows that public service in the highest office in Britain can be open to those of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds. This will be a source of pride to many British Asians – including many who do not share Rishi Sunak’s Conservative politics” Sunder Katwala of  British Future, a think-tank dealing with integration and race.

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Sunak will be the youngest prime minister of Britain in 200 years according to reports in the local press. Luckily for Sunak, Penny Mordaunt’s decision to withdraw from the contest ensured that the process did not involve voting by members of the Conservative party. In  September, during Sunak’s unsuccessful bid against Liz Truss, while he got the backing of the MPs the party voted overwhelmingly for Truss.

The Conservative party leaders will be happy that the matter did not go to the ordinary members of the party as Britain desperately needs a stable government to quickly get to work. Sunak faces a daunting challenge and needs the support of every section of the Conservative party which is at the moment ridden with factional in-fighting. Sunak will have to hit the ground running as he tries to bring political stability and get the economy back on the rails. Britain is facing multiple problems, including inflation at 10.1 per cent, a 40-year high, and the cost of living spiralling at the back of higher energy and food costs. The nation's national health system is creaking and needs an urgent infusion of funds. With the onset of winter, ensuring heating for vulnerable sections will be a major headache for the government. Add to this the Bank of England’s prediction of a recession in the coming months.

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The opposition is calling for fresh elections and has pointed out that Sunak does not have the people’s mandate. He has been elected only by members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, tweeted, "The Tories have crowned Rishi Sunak without him saying a word about what he would do as PM. He has no mandate, no answers and no ideas. Nobody voted for this. The public deserves their say on Britain’s future through a General Election. It’s time for a fresh start with Labour.”

Ethnic minorities of Britain, whether Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or the Caribbean have traditionally supported the Labour Party as it was more attuned to the problems they faced. There were very few from the immigrant communities that voted Conservative. It was former prime minister David Cameron, who, noting the changing contours of the UK’s population, first pushed for getting the non-Whites into the party. He realised that for the future growth of the party, it needed to look beyond its traditional vote bank and widen its appeal by weaning the immigrant  Browns and Blacks to the Tory fold. That initiative by Cameron was followed by others in the Conservative party, with the result that today there is a good representation of people of colour in the party. However, this is usually confined to the more affluent sections with the majority of the working class people of colour preferring to stay with Labour. A large section of rich Indian-origin British citizens over the last decade have veered to the Conservative camp.

Boris Johnson’s cabinet in 2019, had the most ethnically diverse cabinet that Britain had ever seen. There was Sajid Javid as chancellor of the exchequer, who however quit early on because of interference from the PMO. He was replaced by Rishi Sunak. Javid later became health secretary. Priti Patel was the home secretary, Alok Sharma the international development secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng was the minister for business, energy and industrial strategy. James Cleverley was the party chairman. These coloured ethnic minorities represented 18 per cent of Johnson’s cabinet.

Before Johnson’s tenure, not many people of colour were full cabinet ministers. The earlier appointments to cabinet posts were only a handful. They were Paul Boateng, chief secretary to the treasury and Valerie Amos, international development secretary and leader of the House of Lords, both under Tony Blair (Labour). Sayeeda Warsi, minister without portfolio, Sajid Javid, secretary of state for culture, media and sports and secretary of state business, innovation and skills both when David Cameron was PM( Conservative). Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron, appointed Sajid Javid as secretary of state for housing, communities and local government and home secretary. May also appointed Priti Patel as secretary of state for international development.

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Circumstances have offered Rishi Sunak a chance to take on the highest office, if he fails it will be difficult for the next person of colour to take on the leadership of Britain.

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