Sunak takes over crisis-laden UK, facing several uphill challenges
Published: Oct 26, 2022 12:43 AM
Art school teacher Sagar Kambli paints a picture of new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Mumbai, India on October 25, 2022. Sunak is of Indian origin. Photo: AFP

Art school teacher Sagar Kambli paints a picture of new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Mumbai, India on October 25, 2022. Sunak is of Indian origin. Photo: AFP

After months of political struggle and economic hardship, Britons are now looking at Rishi Sunak, their third prime minister in two months, and the first British-Asian prime minister, also one of the richest the country ever had. Yet Chinese observers are cautious that he could be the savoir of a crisis-laden UK. 

The recent frequent change of prime ministers in the UK has thrown the country into a once-in-a-generation political turmoil. Although the selection of Sunak offers a momentary relief, experts are warning that Sunak faces several uphill challenges including saving the crumbling economy and navigating through political headwinds, which if he fails to do might toss the country into yet another impasse.

Sunak has used his first speech as prime minister to warn the UK is in the grips of an "economic crisis" as he vowed to fix "mistakes" made by Liz Truss and win back voters' trust.

Addressing the nation on Tuesday, Sunak warned there would be "difficult decisions to come" in an attempt to regain economic stability and avoid mass borrowing mounting up. Earlier on Tuesday, he was asked by the King at Buckingham Palace to form a government before officially taking power.

Sunak, a former chancellor, won the public support of almost 200 of his Conservative MP colleagues to succeed Liz Truss, who resigned last Thursday after a chaotic six weeks in office. 

Speaking on Sunak's assuming office, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at Tuesday's press briefing that he hopes the UK can push the bilateral ties on the right track, on the basis of mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. 

Tussles ahead

Sunak had challenged Truss this summer in race of prime minister but lost to her in a vote of the party's rank-and-file members. 

Chinese experts said this latest series of political drama surrounding the UK premiership has exposed the rigidity and decay of the UK's political system, which can hardly produce capable politicians to make optimal decision for the country. 

The Conservative Party, which is now in power, chooses someone who is eligible for the Downing Street, and before this person presents a decent plan of governance, he or she is stabbed in the back by opponents in the Party and steps down, Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of European Studies, told the Global Times, describing this pattern has made the UK politics more "dramatic" than "late night TV drama."

He warned that one of the toughest tasks Sunak faces is how to survive until next election, originally scheduled for January 2025.

Right after Sunak won the Conservative Party leadership race, there were calls for a general election by voices from other political parties. Labour lawmaker Angela Rayner complained that Sunak's accession was a coronation and that the Tories could not "keep doling out prime ministers every month."

After Truss stepped down, one petition calling for a general election had attracted more than 879,000 signatures by Tuesday.

In the UK, general elections must be held at least every five years. However, the prospect of Britain seeing its third prime minister since the last poll in 2019 and the second to come into power without a public vote will put pressure on Truss' successor to ask the public for a new mandate, CNN reported. 

The possibility of earlier elections is very high, if Sunak fails to tackle the sky-high inflation in the UK in half a year of his governance, or meets strong pushback of his policies, or encounter major obstacles of forming a cabinet, Li Guanjie, a research fellow from the Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies, under the Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times.

Although observers granted Sunak, who possesses technocratic style of governing, they don't believe he is the savoir of a crisis-wrecked UK. "Except for different descent, Sunak is no difference from his Conservative Party predecessors. The election is in essence an election within the Conservative Party, thus desirable candidates are just chosen by Conservative Party members, who are mostly rich," said Zhao. 

The Indian factor

Reuters reported that many Indians are delighted at the prospect of Sunak, a practicing Hindu, becoming the first person of Indian origin to become British prime minister, just as Hindus across the world celebrate the Hindu religious festival Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights.

In a congratulatory message on Twitter, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday offered his "special Diwali wishes" to the new UK prime minister. 

 "Warmest congratulations @RishiSunak! As you become UK PM, I look forward to working closely together on global issues, and implementing Roadmap 2030. Special Diwali wishes to the 'living bridge' of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership," Modi tweeted.

Sunak is also one of the wealthiest people in Britain. Sunak, a former banker, and his wife, Indian tech heiress Akshata Murty, have an estimated fortune of about $827 million, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

Chinese experts believe the jubilant mood among Indian public is tinted with pride and comfort, given the history that India was used to be a colony of Britain. "Despite his Indian origin, Sunak was born and bred in the UK, and is a British politician. So he will only make his decisions on behalf of the UK, and it has nothing to do with his identity," said Li.

Zhao noted that Sunak's Indian heritage and his wealth may put him under more strict scrutiny as prime minister, and in return will weigh on his decision-making process. "Being a leader from a minority group, he may tend to be more conservative just to avoid wide criticism; and he will be very vulnerable if people see his policy as favoring the rich and big companies," said Zhao.

The New York Times also reported that critics speculated that Sunak's Indian heritage might have hurt him in the race with some party members this summer,his wealth was viewed as the bigger issue.