Rishi Sunak: A PM with Problems
By BRADLEY BARNES
Rishi Sunak is our third PM this year, gaining office following the chaotic downfall of not one, but two, Conservative governments. But just who is Rishi Sunak? Where did he come from? How will he govern? And can he resolve the various problems our country faces, as well as those within his own party? Rishi Sunak was born in Southampton to parents of Punjabi descent; one an NHS practitioner, the other a pharmacist. His parents paid for him to attend Winchester College, a prestigious independent school. After graduating he went on to read PPE at Oxford. After completing a postgraduate degree, he worked at Goldman Sachs and was a partner in various hedge funds before becoming a sitting Conservative MP in 2015. He held junior ministerial positions in both May’s and Johnson’s governments and was later promoted to the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer in February 2020.
Just weeks into this new role, Sunak faced major challenges when the UK economy shut down due to Covid-19. To relieve the financial insecurity many firms and workers faced in this period, Sunak implemented a furlough scheme, giving grants to employers so they could still afford to pay workers. Sunak remained Chancellor until July 2022, when he resigned following multiple controversies surrounding the then-PM Boris Johnson. He then lost the Tory leadership contest to Liz Truss. Truss’s resignation produced another contest, which Sunak won uncontested after all other candidates dropped out.
Sunak has inherited office at a time of great turmoil for the UK. Rising global gas prices have led to soaring inflation which has brought on a sharp fall in living standards and real wages. There are large amounts of public debt due to the heavy government intervention needed to tackle the pandemic, a situation not improved by the reckless behaviour of the PM’s predecessor. After over a decade of slow growth, the UK economy is now set to go into recession. Quite aside from the bleak economic picture, Sunak also has to rebuild his party’s credibility after they plummeted to new lows of popularity in the Truss era; and rebuild our country’s credibility, following the humiliating demise of two prime ministers over the course of one year. Although Sunak hasn’t been in Number 10 for very long, we can hazard some healthy guesses on how he will govern from his time as Chancellor and the recent Autumn Statement.
Whilst still very much a Tory Chancellor, with a strong focus on growth and fiscal responsibility, Sunak often annoyed the right of his party by implementing policies considered ‘unconservative’, such as corporation tax hikes and massive spending packages during the pandemic. Unlike his predecessor, he seems to value practicality over ideology, something reinforced by his Autumn Statement, which has aimed to fill the hole in public finances with a combination of both tax rises and spending cuts. That marginally avoids a repeat of austerity which would lead to even sharper falls in living standards. Sunak’s international relations have got off to a somewhat shaky start, with his flip-flopping regarding attending the COP27 climate summit - which he only seemed to be interested in once he saw Boris Johnson on the guest list.
Although this was certainly embarrassing, in a sense Sunak’s very presence in Number 10 is helping to mend our reputation. He isn’t surrounded by scandals or proposing ridiculous policies. Whilst, admittedly, our last two PMs have set a very low bar, he has thus far managed to tame the chaos which has dominated our politics for the last six months. Moreover, he has also, so far at least, treated other world leaders in a respectful manner, contacting Sturgeon following a blackout in communication in Truss’s tenure and reinforcing commitment to friendship with France after relations soured in both Truss’s and Johnson’s premierships. This being said, he has also shown himself not to be a pushover, adopting a tough stance on relations with China very early into his time as PM.
Only time will tell what will shape Sunak’s premiership but I hope to have provided some insight into who the man is, the challenges he faces and what kind of PM he might be.
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