Rishi Sunak takes over as British prime minister amid economic crisis
Rishi Sunak became Britain’s third prime minister this year on Tuesday, tasked with taming an economic crisis that has left the country’s finances in a precarious state and millions struggling to pay their food and energy bills.
Sunak, who is the U.K.’s first leader of color, met King Charles III at Buckingham Palace, where the monarch officially asked the new leader of the governing Conservative Party to form a government, as is tradition.
Sunak clinched the leadership position Monday, seen by his party as a safe pair of hands it hopes will stabilize an economy sliding toward recession — and stem its own plunging popularity, after the brief, disastrous term of Liz Truss.
Her package of unfunded tax cuts spooked financial markets with the prospect of ballooning debt, drove the pound to record lows and forced the Bank of England to intervene — weakening Britain’s fragile economy and obliterating Truss’ authority within her party.
Sunak — at 42 the youngest British leader in more than 200 years — acknowledged the scale of his challenge as well as the skepticism of a British public alarmed at the state of the economy and weary of a Conservative Party soap opera that has chewed through two prime ministers in as many months.
Sunak immediately set about filling the posts in his government, aiming to put his stamp on the government while bringing in people from different wings of the Conservative Party. His first move was to remove about a dozen members of Truss’ Cabinet.
He aims to assemble a Cabinet whose competence can erase memories of the missteps and U-turns of the past months. But the right-of-center party’s divisions over immigration, relations with Europe and other big issues, remain deep. Allies of Truss and her scandal-plagued predecessor Boris Johnson who have been demoted from government can now nurture grievances from Parliament’s back benches.
When he was Treasury chief, Sunak became popular with the public by handing out billions in support to shuttered businesses and laid-off workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But now he will have to oversee tax hikes and public spending cuts as he tries to bring inflation and government debt under control. A wave of strikes over pay that has already seen walkouts by railway staff, telecoms workers, garbage collectors, lawyers and dockworkers is likely to spread.