Rishi Sunak will become the United Kingdom’s new prime minister after winning the ruling Conservative Party’s leadership contest, which was triggered by the resignation of Liz Truss last week.
Sunak’s win on Monday came days after Truss’s resignation after her disastrous tax cuts plans and policy U-turns plunged the markets into chaos. The unprecedented economic crisis drew a rare intervention from the Bank of England.
Britain faces serious economic challenges and needs stability and unity, Sunak said on Monday in his first public speech since winning the contest.
“There is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” Sunak said. “We now need stability and unity, and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together.”
Sunak, a former finance minister, has been left with the task of steering a deeply divided country through an economic downturn set to make millions of people poorer.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from London, said Sunak is “pretty well placed” despite the challenges ahead.
“In some ways, … some of his work has already been done in terms of putting out the fires that Liz Truss created because it did cause a storm in the markets,” Simmons said.
“The whole list of tax cuts and ideas that frankly, according to Sunak and others, belongs to Disneyland because none of it was going to be really possible without crashing the economy more,” he said.
Sunak’s only challenger, Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons and former defence minister, was reportedly backed by 30 MPs compared with nearly 150 supporting Sunak.
“This decision is an historic one and shows, once again, the diversity and talent of our party,” Mordaunt said in a statement as she withdrew from the race just minutes before the winner was due to be announced. “Rishi has my full support.”
Sunak and Mordaunt had lost to Truss last month in the race to appoint a successor to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He was forced to announce his resignation in July after a wave of scandals linked to parties held during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Sunak will be the UK’s first leader of colour and the first Hindu to take the top job. At 42, he will also be the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years.
The multimillionaire former hedge fund boss will be expected to impose deep spending cuts to try to rebuild the UK’s fiscal reputation, just as the country slides into a recession, dragged down by the surging costs of energy and food.
He will also inherit a political party that has fractured along ideological lines, a challenge that damaged the fortunes of several former Conservative leaders.
While there were rumours about a Johnson comeback over the weekend, he pulled out of the contest on Sunday.
He had said that he had secured the backing of 102 legislators and could have been “back in Downing Street” but he had failed to persuade either Sunak or Mordaunt to come together and back him “in the national interest”.
“I believe I have much to offer, but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” Johnson said.
The Tories retain a majority in parliament, meaning that as their leader, Sunak will be named prime minister by King Charles III.
Economists have questioned whether Sunak can tackle the country’s finances while holding the party’s multiple warring factions together.
Finance minister Jeremy Hunt – the fourth person in that role in four months – is due to present a budget on October 31 to plug a black hole in the public finances, which is expected to have ballooned to up to 40 billion pounds ($45.2bn).
Conservative political commentator Alex Deane noted that the last three Conservative prime ministers have been brought down by members of their own party.
“So it’s very nice to hear people say good things about our new leader,” Deane told Al Jazeera.
“[Sunak] didn’t have a direct electoral mandate,” Deane said. “… One of the things he is going to have to do … is preside over a period of relative calm, reassuring the markets and not doing anything too bold or too rapid.”
“One of the things he is likely to do is to keep Jeremy Hunt as chancellor,” he added. “He really reassured the markets when he arrived. What he can’t do is to compel Tory MPs to demonstrate loyalty to him.”