First, it is a triumph for Britain to see the elevation of its first leader of Asian descent. Sunak is a Peloton-riding, teetotal, practicing Hindu hoodie father who was born in Southampton, England, the son of migrants. Oh, and he’s filthy rich. He is a multimillionaire himself, as a hedge funder, and is married to an Indian heiress.
The possible political lines of attack are clear, but for a moment many across the country, and even the world, have suspended all politics to rejoice at what this moment meant for Britain and what is being said about Britain.
Labor leader Keir Starmer started the Prime Minister’s questions with a qualification-free statement of praise for the achievement.
“The first British-Asian prime minister is an important moment in our national story,” he said. “It reminds us that, despite all the challenges we face as a country, Britain is a place where people of all races and all faiths can fulfill their dreams.
“That is not true in every country, and many did not think they would live to see the day when it would be true here. It’s part of what makes us all so proud to be British.”
India erupted with joy when Sunak’s appointment as new conservative leader was confirmed and the image of the British-Asian prime minister meeting the new king made it feel like a positive shift was taking place after all the upheavals of recent months.
Across the Atlantic, Joe Biden and his White House struggled to understand the new prime minister’s name (admittedly, they’ve had to learn a few new ones thanks to the prime minister’s musical chairs), reminding me of that moment when Biden seemed to forget Scott Morrison’s name, despite agreeing to hand over the keys to the nuclear submarine’s secrets.
Any joy at the symbolism of Sunak’s upliftment is likely to be short-lived and certainly won’t be top of mind on election day, two years from now.
The challenges for the UK are serious and huge. Sunak, the former chancellor, faces a budget black hole of £35 billion ($63 billion) and has had the tax statement postponed on Halloween. That statement will set out how the UK government will pay for its spending plans and Sunak has warned that doing so will involve difficult decisions.
It’s pretty much the same rhetoric that Australians heard from treasurer Jim Chalmers in the run-up to his first budget, although when the day came, Chalmers’ austerity measures weren’t accompanied by much political pain, mainly a reversal of the coalition’s pork.
Sunak’s task, if he is sincere about restoring economic discipline, will be of a more urgent nature. And it comes at a time when real pain begins to feel. Food inflation has just hit 14 percent with headline inflation around 10 percent. Groceries are fairly cheap by Australian standards, but in recent weeks I’ve had that feeling of dread at the supermarket checkout that I used to have in Australia, where you fill fewer bags but still cost the same.
How the people who are just now starting to manage are going to make it is the question on everyone’s mind and a source of genuine concern.
UK supermarket chain Morrisons has already launched a free meal program (a baked potato with canned beans) in its cafes, with a special code word. Customers just need to “ask about Henry”.
If austerity is the answer to the country’s economic problems, the longevity of conservatives in office will certainly be in question.