Rishi Sunak will become British prime minister on Monday after other candidates quit the race to lead the Conservative Party, leaving him with the task of steering a deeply divided country through an economic downturn set to leave millions of people poorer.
Sunak, one of the wealthiest politicians in Westminster, will be asked to form a government by King Charles, replacing Liz Truss, the outgoing leader who only lasted 44 days in the job.
He defeated centrist politician Penny Mordaunt, who failed to get enough backing from lawmakers to enter the ballot, while his rival, the former prime minister Boris Johnson, withdrew from the contest saying he could no longer unite the party.
“This decision is a historic one and shows, once again, the diversity and talent of our party. Rishi has my full support,” Mordaunt said in a statement as she withdrew from the race just minutes before the winner was due to be announced.
The pound and British government bond prices jumped briefly on news of Mordaunt’s withdrawal but soon returned to their previous levels.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif congratulated Sunak on his nomination for the next Conservative chief and UK premier.
“I look forward to working with him to advance shared interests and further deepen the abiding Pakistan-UK partnership,” he tweeted.
Sunak, the 42-year-old former finance minister, becomes Britain’s third prime minister in less than two months, tasked with restoring stability to a country reeling from years of political and economic turmoil.
The multi-millionaire former hedge fund boss would be expected to launch deep spending cuts to try to rebuild Britain’s fiscal reputation, just as the country slides into a recession, dragged down by the surging cost of energy and food.
Britain has been locked in a state of perma-crisis ever since it voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, unleashing a battle at Westminster over the future of the country that remains unresolved to this today.
The latest bout of drama has drawn dismay in foreign capitals and ridicule from the world’s press.
Sunak came to national attention when, aged 39, he became finance minister under Johnson just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Britain, developing the successful furlough scheme.
The former Goldman Sachs analyst will be the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of Indian origin.
His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a period when many people from Britain’s former colonies moved to the country to help it rebuild after the Second World War.
After graduating from Oxford University, he went to Stanford University where he met his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father is Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys Ltd.
Economy in crisis
Sunak inherits a UK economy that was headed for a recession even before the recent turmoil triggered by Truss.
She resigned after her budget of tax cuts funded by debt sent shockwaves through markets, crashing the pound.
That caused the government to U-turn on most of its budget, including scaling back a cap on soaring energy bills that have contributed heavily to a cost-of-living crisis for tens of millions of Britons.
Data on Monday showed Britain’s economic downturn worsened in October, with private-sector output at a 21-month low.
“October’s flash PMI data showed the pace of economic decline gathering momentum after the recent political and financial market upheavals,” noted Chris Williamson, chief business economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence that helped compile the figures.
“The heightened political and economic uncertainty has caused business activity to fall at a rate not seen since the global financial crisis in 2009 if pandemic lockdown months are excluded.”
Williamson added that upcoming data would likely show Britain already in recession.
The S&P Global/ CIPS flash UK composite purchasing managers index stood at 47.2 in October, below September’s level of 49.1.
A figure under 50 indicates a contraction.
The UK is not alone, however, with separate S&P data pointing to an “impending recession” in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy.