LONDON — Rishi Sunak ran for Britain’s top job and lost. Now he has another shot — and the chance to say “I told you so.”
The former U.K. Treasury chief was runner-up to Liz Truss in the contest to replace the scandal-plagued Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister. But Truss quit after a turbulent 45-day term, and Johnson has abandoned a comeback attempt, leaving Sunak a strong favorite to finally assume the office he missed out on less than two months ago.
Victory in the Conservative leadership contest would be vindication for Sunak, who warned in the last campaign that Truss’ tax-cutting economic plans were reckless and would cause havoc. And so they did.
Truss resigned last week after her package of tax cuts spooked financial markets, hammered the value of the pound and obliterated her authority.
If he wins, he will be Britain’s first nonwhite leader and the first Hindu to take the top job. At 42, he’ll also be the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years, a political prodigy whose youthful looks, sharp suits, and smooth, confident manner saw him dubbed “Dishy Rishi” by the British media.
To win, Sunak still must overcome allegations by opponents that he was a turncoat for quitting Johnson’s government as it foundered amid ethics scandals. The near-simultaneous resignations of Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid on July 5 set off a chain reaction. Within 48 hours, some 50 members of the government had quit, and Johnson was forced to step down.
Sunak painted it as a matter of principle, saying he wanted to repair the “breakdown of trust” in politics. He also accused Truss of offering “fairy tales” by promising immediate tax cuts when he felt curbing soaring inflation was a bigger priority.
“I would rather lose having fought for the things that I passionately believe are right for our country, and being true to my values, than win on a false promise,” Sunak said in a BBC interview.
Sunak was born in 1980 in Southampton on England’s south coast to parents of Indian descent who were both born in East Africa. He grew up in a middle-class family, his father a family doctor and his mother a pharmacist, and says he inherited their hard-working ethos.
“I grew up working in the shop, delivering medicines,” he said during the campaign. “I worked as a waiter at the Indian restaurant down the street.”
He has described how his parents saved to send him to Winchester College, one of Britain’s toniest and most expensive boarding schools.
There he mingled with the elite. Rivals recently dug up a clip from a 2001 television documentary about the class system in which the 21-year-old Sunak said he had “friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper class, I have friends who are, you know, working class — well, not working class.”
After high school, Sunak studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University — the degree of choice for future prime ministers — then got an MBA at Stanford University.
He worked for the investment bank Goldman Sachs as a hedge fund manager and lived in the U.S., where he met his wife, Akshata Murty. The couple has two daughters.
Returning to Britain, Sunak was elected to Parliament for the safe Tory seat of Richmond in Yorkshire in 2015. In Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum, he supported leaving the European Union — a risky career move, since it went against the Conservative government’s policy.
When “leave” unexpectedly won, Sunak’s career took off. He served in several junior ministerial posts before being appointed chancellor of the exchequer — head of the Treasury — by Johnson in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
An instinctively low-tax, small state politician who idolizes former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he nonetheless forked out billions in government money to keep people and businesses afloat during the pandemic. His furlough program, which paid the salaries of millions of workers when they were temporarily laid off, made him the most popular member of the government — a status he burnished with slick social media messages that rivals and critics said stressed his own brand more than the government’s.
But Sunak has had his wobbles over the years. Critics said a campaign to get people to eat in restaurants after lockdown restrictions were eased in the summer of 2020 contributed to another wave of COVID-19.
Others have said Sunak’s family’s vast wealth and Silicon Valley past put him out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people.
He also faced questions about his finances and those of his wife. Murty is the daughter of the billionaire founder of Indian tech giant Infosys, and the couple is worth 730 million pounds ($877 million), according to the Sunday Times Rich List.
In April 2022, it emerged that Murty did not pay U.K. tax on her overseas income. The practice was legal, but it looked bad at a time when Sunak was raising taxes for millions of Britons. Sunak also was criticized for holding on to his American green card, which signifies an intent to settle in the U.S., for two years after he became Britain’s finance minister.
Sunak was cleared of wrongdoing, but the revelations still hurt. He was fined by police, along with Johnson and dozens of others, for attending a party in the prime minister’s office in 2020 that broke coronavirus lockdown rules. Outrage over those parties at a time when Britons were forced to stay home contributed to Johnson’s downfall. Sunak has said he attended inadvertently and briefly.
In his first leadership campaign, he depicted himself as the candidate of grown-up decisions and fiscal probity, criticizing Truss’ plans to lower taxes and increase borrowing, and vowing to get inflation under control.
That’s now a harder job than ever.