LONDON — Former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak won the race to be Britain’s next prime minister on Monday, the first British Asian to assume the role and the third leader in seven weeks of a country upended by political and economic chaos.
Sunak, 42, will become the latest leader of the ruling Conservative Party to enter the revolving door of No. 10 Downing St., following Liz Truss’ resignation just 44 days after taking office. Her scandal-plagued predecessor, Boris Johnson, dropped his bid for a comeback Sunday.
Sunak’s victory was confirmed Monday after his only other challenger, Penny Mordaunt, failed to secure the support of enough of her fellow lawmakers before the deadline.
“Rishi Sunak is therefore elected as leader of the Conservative Party,” Graham Brady, the Conservative lawmaker who oversees the party’s leadership elections, told his colleagues, who banged on tables and cheered at the announcement.
Sunak will now be invited to form a government by King Charles III, a ceremonial duty the country’s new monarch will carry out for the first time.
A multimillionaire former banker, Sunak was not elected by the United Kingdom’s 67 million people but rather appointed by lawmakers from the Conservative Party, which is recording historic polling lows after a decade of austerity and 18 months of controversy and division.
This is the party’s second leadership contest in two months. In the first, Sunak was the clear favorite until Truss’ late surge saw her elected by the party’s nearly 200,000 paying members, who are mostly white, wealthy and male, and tend to lean to the right of the British political center.
This time, those members didn’t have a say because Sunak was the only candidate to get the requisite support of 100 lawmakers to reach a potential runoff.
Johnson claimed he could have reached this threshold, and he may well have won a wider vote among the membership. But doing so would have strained a bitterly divided party to the breaking point, so unpopular is Johnson in Parliament. Sunak’s other challenger, Mordaunt, announced minutes before the 9 a.m. ET deadline that she, too, had failed to gather enough support. “Rishi has my full support,” she said in a statement.
The son of African-born Hindus of Indian descent, Sunak will be the country’s second ethnic minority leader, after Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the 1800s, who was of Jewish descent but a practicing Christian. Sunak won the leadership contest on Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.
Born in the southern port city of Southampton, Sunak became the member of Parliament for Richmond in the northern region of Yorkshire in 2015. His rapid rise through the ranks saw him build his own personal brand with a slick social media operation and popular measures to alleviate economic pressure during the pandemic.
“The United Kingdom is a great country but we face a profound economic crisis,” Sunak said on Twitter Sunday, his only public comments during the latest leadership contest. “I want to fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country.”
It will be a herculean effort, as he takes the helm during a domestic economic crisis and while Britain is anxiously trying to find its place in the world after its departure from the European Union.