Who is Rishi Sunak? Inside the race for Britain's next prime minister

Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and former defense minister Penny Mordaunt had joined the fray to become the country's fifth prime minister in six years.

AP/Alberto Pezzali
Conservative Party leadership candidate Rishi Sunak leaves his campaign office, in London, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022. Mr. Sunak, a former British Treasury chief, is frontrunner in the Conservative Party’s race to replace Liz Truss as prime minister.

Before announcing he was pulling out of the contest, Boris Johnson was fighting on Sunday to get enough support to make a shock return as Britain’s prime minister after prominent figures on the right wing of the Conservative Party coalesced around the man once accused of betraying him, Rishi Sunak.

Mr. Sunak, a former finance minister, confirmed on Sunday he would enter the competition to replace Liz Truss, vowing to tackle the country’s “profound economic crisis” with “integrity, professionalism and accountability.”

“I want to fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country,” said Mr. Sunak, the man accused by Mr. Johnson’s supporters of ending his previous three-year spell in office.

Mr. Sunak quit the cabinet in July, triggering an unprecedented ministerial rebellion against Mr. Johnson.

The declaration from the clear front-runner threw down the gauntlet to Mr. Johnson, who had returned from a holiday in the Caribbean to try to secure the backing of 100 lawmakers to get onto Monday’s ballot.

During his previous time in Downing Street he was supported by many of the different factions in the party, including those on the right who spearheaded Britain’s departure from the European Union.

This time, however, many previous backers had told Mr. Johnson he should step aside, noting that the country needs stability after Ms. Truss’s chaotic six-weeks in power sparked turmoil on financial markets, hitting the value of the pound.

Mr. Johnson is also still facing a privileges committee investigation into whether he misled parliament over Downing Street parties during COVID-19 lockdowns. He could be forced to resign or be suspended from office if found guilty.

“This isn’t the time for Boris’s style,” Steve Baker, an influential lawmaker on the right of the party who is backing Mr. Sunak, told Sky News. “I’m afraid the trouble is because of the privileges vote, Boris would be a guaranteed disaster.”

Britain has been thrust into yet another leadership battle after Ms. Truss was forced to quit when her radical economic policies drove up borrowing costs and mortgage rates at a time of surging energy and food bills.

Mr. Sunak and former defense minister Penny Mordaunt are in the fray to become the country’s fifth prime minister in six years. Mr. Johnson announced Sunday evening he would not pursue the office, saying “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament.”

Opposition leader Keir Starmer said the battle at the top of Conservatives was a “ridiculous, chaotic circus,” and his focus was on the millions of Britons struggling to pay their bills.

The Labour Party leader, along with other opposition parties, have called for a national election.

An unpopular candidate versus a divisive one

The prospect of Mr. Johnson’s return had been a polarizing issue for many in a divided Conservative Party, while his popularity among voters had also tumbled before he was forced out.

For some lawmakers, he is a vote-winner, able to appeal across the country with his celebrity image and brand of energetic optimism. For others he is a toxic figure who would fail to unite the party and so might undermine efforts to build a stable leadership to calm rattled financial markets.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had endorsed Mr. Johnson earlier on Sunday, saying he had “learned lessons from his time in No. 10 and will ensure the focus is on the needs of the country from day one.”

If Mr. Sunak is chosen, he would be the first prime minister of Indian origin in the United Kingdom.

His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a period when many people from Britain’s former colonies arrived to help rebuild the country after the Second World War.

After graduating from Oxford University, he later went to Stanford University where he met his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father is Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys Ltd.

Mr. Sunak first came to national attention when, aged 39, he became finance minister under Mr. Johnson just as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Britain, developing a furlough scheme to support millions of people through multiple lockdowns.

“I served as your chancellor, helping to steer our economy through the toughest of times,” Mr. Sunak said in a statement on Sunday. “The challenges we face now are even greater. But the opportunities - if we make the right choice - are phenomenal.”

Despite polls showing Mr. Sunak to be more popular in the country, he remains deeply unpopular with large parts of the party membership after they blamed him for bringing down Mr. Johnson.

According to the rules of the accelerated contest, if only one candidate secures the backing of 100 Conservative lawmakers, they will be named prime minister on Monday.

If two candidates pass the threshold, they will go forward to a vote of the party membership, with the winner announced on Friday, just days before finance minister Jeremy Hunt is due to lay bare the state of the country’s finances on Oct. 31.

So far none of the three candidates have given any detail about what policies they would introduce if they became prime minister.

This story was reported by Reuters. This story was updated on Sunday after Mr. Johnson pulled out of the race.

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