Why British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces likely electoral defeat


Category:  News & Politics

Via:  perrie-halpern  •  2 weeks ago  •  0 comments

By:   Patrick Smith

Why British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces likely electoral defeat
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will lead his Conservative Party into a U.K. general election. But who is the country's first British-Indian prime minister.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

RICHMOND, England — Rishi Sunak has a habit of making history. He's the United Kingdom's first British Indian prime minister and its first Hindu leader, and at 42 he was the youngest to take the job in over 200 years. He's also probably the richest person to govern from No. 10 Downing St.

Now 44, Sunak is about to mark new and less flattering records in the U.K. general election Thursday. After a campaign beset by scandals, PR failures and allegations of insider betting, he may very well lead his Conservative Party to its worst defeat ever.

How did it come to this? Hanging over the electorate is a feeling that there is one set of rules for the elites in London — and another for the rest of Britain after years of Conservative Party rule. Living standards are being squeezed. The gap between the very rich — which includes Sunak — and the rest has continued to widen. There is the widespread perception that public services not just are struggling but are on the verge of failing.

The backlash against the Tories — the nickname for the Conservatives — is so strong that Sunak may lose his own constituency, which no prime minister has done before. The Conservatives have held the seat since 1910.

In Richmond in late June, a picturesque Yorkshire market town at the heart of Sunak's territory, early summer rays recently bounced off steep cobbled streets and stone-clad buildings as day-trippers and locals chatted in pub beer gardens.

Many here wouldn't be surprised to see Sunak tossed out of power.

Paul Armstrong, who runs a book stall,was a loyal Conservative for decades. He said he won't vote this time around.

"I liked Boris Johnson at the time; I thought he did an amazing job, Brexit and stuff like that," Armstrong, 62, said. "I think it's just the antics of the Conservative Party, especially over the last about five years. People have had enough of it."

If current polls are replicated in the election, Labour will win more than 400 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons — the biggest majority since World War II and the Tories' single worst general election result.

Outside H. Taylor & Sons, which describes itself as "THE NOTED PIE SHOP," the political mood was grim.

"I don't trust Rishi," said Ann-Marie Hardie, 57, standing at a bus stop. "I'd sooner vote for him," she said, gesturing at a man in a Manchester United shirt also waiting for the next bus, which was late.

Hardie is also a former Conservative voter, but this time, she said, she will either back Reform — a right-wing party run by pro-Brexit, anti-migration firebrand Nigel Farage — or not cast a ballot at all. She is angry about the scandal known as Partygate, when government officials under Boris Johnson were carousing together in the Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021 while the rest of the country was under strict lockdown.

"My husband was in a hospice dying while they partied in Downing Street," she said. "They were telling people not to party, but they were. They were making the rules. No, I'll never forget. Never."

Many voters are angry with hospitals' performance, arguably the worst in the National Health Service's history, prisons at breaking point and multiple local governments — including the city of Birmingham, with 1.1 million people — that ran out of money and declared bankruptcy.

Living standards have dropped dramatically in the country, with real household disposable income falling 0.9% — the first parliamentary term in history that has left people worse off than before, according to the economic think tank the Resolution Foundation.

Britain's exit from the European Union, which Sunak supported, has not helped: According to one analysis, leaving the trading bloc has cost the U.K. about 5.5% of its economic output.

Meanwhile, Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, are now worth a combined 823 million pounds, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, an annual ranking. Sunak, a staunch admirer of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a free-market warrior, was born in Southampton on England's south coast in 1980. His family is of Indian descent and immigrated to the U.K. from Kenya in the 1960s.

He attended Winchester College, one of the most prestigious and expensive private schools in the country. He then graduated from Oxford University with a first-class degree in politics, philosophy and economics — a course taken by many who hope to enter the British political establishment.

Instead of going directly into politics, Sunak joined Goldman Sachs as an analyst, but less than 10 years later, he plunged into the rowdy world of politics. At the 2015 general election, he was selected to run in the safe Conservative seat of Richmond, one of the largest and most rural constituencies in Britain, with its rolling hills and unspoiled landscapes, now called Richmond and Northallerton.

The town of Richmond, North Yorkshire, is part of Rishi Sunak's constituency. Hollie Adams / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

"He was catapulted in from as far away as Southampton," said Chris Lloyd, chief features writer at The Northern Echo newspaper who has followed Sunak on the campaign trail.

In a faux pas that is still remembered in the farming community, he wore Conservative blue Wellington rubber boots during his campaign, which immediately marked him as a city-dwelling arriviste. He soon rectified his mistake and began to wear the traditional green boots, as favored by farmers and the late Queen Elizabeth II.

He worked hard to gain the trust and support of his constituents, Lloyd said, immersing himself in the details of milk pricing and market prices.

"That's how Rishi Sunak really won people over here," he said.

Sunak swiftly rose through the ranks of government, becoming a junior minister and then chief secretary to the Treasury, essentially a deputy finance minister, where he was marked out as future star by performing well in TV debates and interviews.

Loyal to former Prime Minister Johnson, Sunak was appointed chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, in February 2020, just before the world began to shut down because of Covid-19.

Sunak won praise for a $417 billion plan to support British businesses and a government-backed furlough scheme that supported 11.7 million people at a cost of $88.5 billion. Still, Johnson's government as a whole has been widely criticized for its pandemic response.

240628-sunak-yorkshire-mb-1211-79c270.jpg Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets constituents during a visit to North Yorkshire in January. Ian Forsyth / AP

Johnson's scandal-ridden government made way for fellow Conservative Liz Truss, whose disastrous 44-day stint as prime minister crashed the financial markets and left millions of households facing higher bills, before she quit on Oct. 20, 2022.

Five days later, party lawmakers selected Sunak to become prime minister.

The economy stabilized under Sunak, who was welcomed by many for his apparent calm and competence. But given the political mess he inherited and an increasingly right-leaning, divided party, there may have been very little he could have done to save the Conservatives' electoral chances.

"It's the last four years, and especially people like Liz Truss, that have destroyed their economic competency in the eyes of the public," said Tom Egerton, a co-author of "The Conservative Effect," a new study of the government's 14 years in power. "The economic competency which we all know is so important in elections has gone. It's evaporated."

So it isn't that people hate Sunak. It's his party they can't stand.

"He seems like a decent guy. He just seems weak," said Jan McCoubrey, 66, a resident of Catterick, a few miles east of Richmond.

240628-cameron-biden-dday-mb-1151-30d9df.jpg Sunak was glaringly absent from a photo with President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz after he left an event for a TV interview. His foreign minister, David Cameron, left, took his place. Eliot Blondet / ABACA via AP

According to one poll, the opposition Labour Party has a realistic chance of winning here, an unthinkable outcome just months ago. Sunak's office did not respond to interview requests with either Sunakor local party officials.

The Conservatives have trailed in opinion polls for more than two years — after 14 years in power, the party has exhausted the patience of many voters.

But it turns out things could get much worse: On June 4, Farage's Reform Party joined the election race, attracting millions of right-leaning, Euroskeptic voters and igniting speculation that the Conservative Party could one day split or merge with Reform.

Just three days later, Sunak apologized for leaving an event on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day early for a TV interview in London. He was glaringly absent from a photo with President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — Foreign Secretary David Cameron, the former prime minister, acted as a stand-in.

A scandal last month involving Conservative candidates and officials alleged to have placed bets on the outcome of the election added insult to injury.

At the bus stop in Richmond, the conversation turns to where Sunak goes from here — likely to be kicked out of Downing Street and in real danger of losing his job as a member of Parliament. Some have speculated that he may end up in California to restart his lucrative hedge fund career.

Sunak has denied that, but Hardie is unconvinced: "People have just had enough, haven't they? Well, if he doesn't get in, he's always got America."


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