The race to replace Boris Johnson as the Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister may have just officially begun but it has already made history for its diverse line-up of candidates, including two British Indians. Frontrunner former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Attorney General Suella Braverman, both 42, have much in common as UK-born Indian-origin politicians who campaigned for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
The others vying for the top job at Downing Street on the ballot paper as the nominations closed on Tuesday evening also reflect that diversity in London-born former minister Kemi Badenoch, 42, of Nigerian origin and Iraq-born Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, 55, who came to the UK as a refugee when he was 11 years old and his family fled Baghdad under Saddam Hussein.
Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt and Tory backbencher Tom Tugendhat, are both 49 and have a military background, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, 46, and former minister Jeremy Hunt, 55, completing the list of eight Conservative Party MPs nominated for the race.
Sunak made his pitch to become the first British Prime Minister of Indian-origin with a slick video that referenced the very personal migration story of his rural Africa based Indian maternal grandmother, Sraksha, boarding a flight from Tanzania to build a better life in the UK in the 1960s.
"This young woman came to Britain where she managed to find a job, but it took her nearly a year to save enough money for her husband and children to follow her. One of those children was my mother aged 15,” says Sunak, in the video which has been viewed nearly 50,000 since its release last week. “My mum studied hard to get the qualifications to become a pharmacist. She met my dad, an NHS [National Health Service] GP, and they settled in Southampton. Their story didn’t end there, but that is where my story began,” he says in the voiceover, alongside family pictures of his general practitioner father Yashvir and mother Usha with him as a young boy with his siblings.
The message to the Tory voters being that he represents the face of modern Britain where values of “hard work and fairness” override factors such as race and background. The former Goldman Sachs banker who studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University before getting an MBA from Stanford University in the US, may have had an easy ride in the early years of his political career as a member of Parliament for Richmond in Yorkshire, but not so in the Cabinet.
While he proved hugely popular during the COVID pandemic lockdowns, when as a new Chancellor he unleashed a series of unprecedented measures to save jobs and livelihoods, that honeymoon period ended earlier this year when inflation began to bite and he took some tough tax hike calls. As the media turned hostile amid reports of discord with his former boss Johnson, Sunak faced very personal onslaughts over the tax affairs of his Indian wife, Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy’s daughter Akshata Murty. She gave up her legal non-domicile status to pay taxes on her Indian earnings also in the UK to avoid becoming a “distraction”.
His own decision to hold on to his US Green Card for a few months after becoming finance minister also came under the media scanner, casting doubts over his long-term plans to stick it out in British politics. But it would seem the couple, who have two school-going daughters Anoushka and Krishna, have decided to give Downing Street another go – this time at No. 10, just weeks after an exit from the Chancellor’s base at No. 11 set events in motion that ended in Johnson's resignation.
Meanwhile, former barrister Suella Braverman belongs to the harder Brexit wing of the Tory party who wants a clear break from Europe, including taking the UK out of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In her campaign video, she also references her personal history of her Mauritian mother and Goan-origin father who migrated to the UK from Kenya. “They loved Britain. It gave them hope. It gave them security. This country gave them an opportunity. I think my background’s really informed by my approach to politics,” says the MP for Fareham in south east England.
The mother of two’s maternity leave famously brought about an overdue law change last year to allow her to remain a Cabinet minister while away to give birth. In a vote among the Tory membership by the Conservative Home website, she came in at fourth – just behind Sunak at third.
It would indicate that the nearly 200,000 Tories who will have the ultimate say by postal ballot on the choice of leader and PM between the final two candidates whittled down by MPs are ready to embrace the historic change that the leadership race has thrown up. Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch are placed at No. 1 and 2 respectively in that tally of Tory members. Whatever the outcome of the race, the 2022 Tory leadership battle has etched its place in the history books as being among the most reflective of a diverse Britain.
(With PTI Inputs)