Rishi Sunak has won the backing of Conservative Party MPs to become the UK’s next prime minister.
The 42-year-old’s rival, Penny Mordaunt, withdrew from the internal Tory leadership contest on Monday to succeed Liz Truss, who resigned last week after just six largely chaotic weeks in office.
Truss’ predecessor, Boris Johnson, considered making a comeback, but withdrew from the race on Sunday night.
Sunak’s win, less than two months after Truss’ loss in the previous game, means he will make history on Tuesday when he formally becomes prime minister, the first non-white person to hold the position.
In his first public comments as the new leader, Sunak said: “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve the party I love and give back to the country to which I owe so much.”
Born in the southern English city of Southampton to Hindu parents of Indian descent, Sunak is one of the UK’s wealthiest politicians. Before entering parliament for the first time in 2015, Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, and hedge funds.
His wife, Akshata Murty, whom he met while studying at Stanford University, is the daughter of one of India’s wealthiest IT entrepreneurs.
Sunak became widely known to the public when he was appointed as Secretary of the Treasury by Johnson in 2020. He immediately had to face the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic as the first major test of his tenure at the helm of the Ministry of Finance.
He became popular for the financial support packages for businesses and workers affected by the coronavirus lockdowns, which included time off work, loans to ailing businesses and vouchers for restaurant visits – essentially a carte blanche from Johnson.
“Sunak was operating under a prime minister eager to spend money, particularly on infrastructure projects meant to deliver on the leveling agenda and more broadly because Johnson made spending promises without always thinking about how to pay for them,” Neil Carter, a professor of politics at York University, told Al Jazeera.
“But certain actions failed – the ‘eat out to help out’ initiative may have saved the restaurant industry, but it almost certainly contributed to the devastating second wave of COVID-19 in the fall of 2020,” he said.
Johnson was seemingly inclined to let Sunak do the job — probably to a mistake, British politics reader Stephen Elstub told Al Jazeera.
“During the pandemic, when the government held regular televised briefings, the chancellor announced government handouts while the prime minister told us how many people had died and that we should all stay home,” he said.
However, with the end of all lockdown restrictions this year, Sunak changed his approach to public debt – just as people were beginning to struggle with huge increases in the cost of living.
“His significant increases in corporate taxes and national insurance have been attacked from across the political spectrum for harming business, and because national insurance is a tax on employees, it is disproportionately heavy on younger people,” Carter said.
Sunak, who was highly critical of his predecessor’s unfunded tax cuts that plunged the UK economy into chaos, campaigned promising that he was the right person to run the economy.
However, critics see it differently and will certainly say Sunak has no mandate to rule.
Kier Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labor party, which leads the polls by a wide margin, said last week he was ready to form a government.
“After 12 years of Tory failure, the British people deserve so much better than this revolving door of chaos,” he said on Twitter.
Analysts say Sunak’s lack of mandate means he will have to produce tangible results immediately.
Tom Caygill, a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, said there were a number of issues “waiting for him at his desk”.
“First, there is still the ramifications of the Truss mini-budget,” he told Al Jazeera. “The financial markets are looking for stability and confidence. They also expect some budgetary restraint. The latter is arguably the more difficult of two things the markets want, as it will likely require spending cuts or tax hikes, neither of which will be popular.
“Second, he must be able to unite a party that is bitterly divided. That takes time and wounds will not necessarily heal quickly.”
Many Tories continue to view Sunak as a traitor after causing Johnson’s downfall. In the previous Tory leadership contest involving party members, Truss had defeated Sunak by 81,326 votes to 60,399.
Despite continued opposition calls for a general election, Sunak appeared to rule out a quick vote on Monday.
“The UK is a great country, but there is no doubt that we face a major economic challenge,” he said, pledging to bring “stability and unity” at a time of economic turmoil.
Caygill said he did not expect an early election. “It is not before December 2024 and given the current state of the polls, it is very unlikely that the Conservatives would make an early call as they would lose at this point and lose badly.”
A scenario that could lead to a general election, he said, would be if Sunak struggled to rule, such as failing to approve a budget, but added: “While the psychodrama in the Conservative Party is likely to continue, I suspect I in that kind of business they tiptoe away from the edge.”
Mark Shephard, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the possibility of snap elections will depend primarily on whether Sunak can get the support of his own party.
“Unless the party unites, there is enough potential dissension within the party to make government impossible and an election likely as an exit route,” Shephard said. “However, the party would suffer huge losses in the polls, so begrudgingly united” [and] not enough disagreement to derail is more likely if he can persevere, calm things down.”
In the meantime, what seems to speak in favor of Sunak is that during the previous leadership race he repeatedly warned about the chaos that Truss has unleashed on the financial markets with her economic policy. And this is something his supporters like to emphasize, portraying him as a safe option for leading the country at a time of global uncertainty.
“Time will tell [whether or not Sunak is the right man for the job]. The markets seem to value him more than the alternatives,” Shephard said.
The pound rose 0.15 percent against the US dollar just moments after Sunak’s victory became apparent.
Elstub noted that Sunak is “pro-Brexit and anti-immigration” and said the new Tory leader “describes himself as a ‘fiscal conservative’ who advocates a small state and low taxes. All this would put him on the right of the party, but he is clearly also a pragmatist.”
Indeed, analysts say Sunak will need to show pragmatism to unite his party and provide much-needed stability in a country that has seen more than its fair share of political drama and economic turmoil in recent years. Otherwise, his tenure may also be limited.