First, it is a triumph for Britain to see the rise of its first Asian-born leader. Sunak is a practicing Hindu peloton, teetotal, hoodie-wearing father, born in Southampton, England, the son of migrants. Oh, and he’s very rich. He is a multi-millionaire in his own right, as a hedge funder, and is married to an Indian heiress.
The potential lines of political attack are obvious, but for a moment many people across the country, and even around the world, suspended all politics to rejoice in what this moment meant for Britain and what which is said about Great Britain.
Labor leader Keir Starmer began Prime Minister’s Questions with a statement of unqualified praise for the achievement.
“The first British Prime Minister of Asia is an important moment in our national history,” he said. “It reminds us that, despite all the challenges we face as a country, Britain is a place where people of all races and creeds can achieve their dreams.
“That’s not true in every country, and many didn’t think they’d live long enough to see the day when it was true here. It’s part of what makes us all so proud to be British.
India erupted with joy when Sunak’s appointment as the new Conservative leader was confirmed and the image of the British-Asian prime minister meeting the new king gave the impression that after all the upheaval of the past few months, a positive change was taking place.
Across the Atlantic, Joe Biden and his White House struggled to grasp the name of the new Prime Minister (it must be admitted, they must have learned a few new ones thanks to the Prime Minister’s musical chairs), reminding me of that moment when Biden seemed to forget Scott Morrison’s name, although he agreed to hand over the keys to the secrets of the nuclear submarine.
Any joy over the symbolism of Sunak’s elevation is likely to be short-lived and certainly not a priority on Election Day two years from now.
The UK’s challenges are serious and great. Sunak, the former chancellor, faces a £35billion ($63billion) budget black hole and has delayed the budget statement due on Halloween. This statement will outline how the UK government will pay for its spending plans and Sunak warned that it will involve difficult decisions.
It’s much the same rhetoric Australians heard from Treasurer Jim Chalmers as he approached his first budget, although when the day came Chalmers’ cuts weren’t accompanied by much political pain, constituting mostly a reversal of the Coalition Pork Barrel.
Sunak’s task, if he is sincere about restoring economic discipline, will be more immediate. And that comes at a time when the real pain is starting to kick in. Food inflation has just reached 14% with overall inflation around 10%. Groceries are pretty cheap by Australian standards, but for the past few weeks I’ve had that feeling of dread at the supermarket checkout that I used to feel in Australia, where you fill less bags but it still costs the same.
How people who are just managing now are going to cope is the question on everyone’s mind and a real source of anxiety.
The supermarket chain Morrisons in the UK has already launched a free meal program (a coated potato with canned beans) in its cafes, with a special code word. Customers just have to “ask for Henry”.
If austerity is the answer to the country’s economic woes, the lifespan of the ruling conservatives will certainly be in question.