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24 October 2022

Rishi Sunak to become prime minister after Penny Mordaunt withdraws

The former chancellor faces huge political and economic challenges.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak will be named prime minister after his remaining rival Penny Mordaunt withdrew from the Tory leadership race.

The former chancellor, whose campaign was supported by around 200 Conservative MPs, emerged victorious after the House of Commons leader failed to achieve the required 100 nominations.

Sunak, 42, will become the first non-white politician to reach the UK’s highest office and the youngest prime minister for more than 200 years. He will enter Downing Street at a moment of political and economic turmoil. Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-Budget last month left a £40bn hole in the public finances, which the government intends to close via tax rises or spending cuts. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have fallen more than 30 points behind Labour in the opinion polls (though Sunak is not legally required to call a general election until January 2025).

Sunak, a former investment banker, rose rapidly through the Tory ranks after being elected in the North Yorkshire constituency of Richmond at the 2015 general election, a seat previously held by the former Conservative leader William Hague.

As a backbencher under David Cameron, Sunak campaigned for Leave during the 2016 EU referendum. Theresa May would later promote him to housing minister, and when she resigned amid Brexit deadlock in parliament, Sunak endorsed Boris Johnson as her replacement.

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Johnson later rewarded Sunak by appointing him as chancellor following Sajid Javid’s resignation in February 2020, just before the emergence of Covid-19. Sunak won praise for the rapid introduction of the government’s furlough scheme and the temporary £20 rise in Universal Credit, but also criticism when it was discovered that billions were lost in fraud via the government’s business support schemes. 

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Sunak was, for a period, the most popular politician in the UK. But his reputation was dented earlier this year when his wife Akshata Murty, daughter of the Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, was revealed to be registered as a non-domicile living in London – a tax status that allows people to avoid paying UK taxes on foreign earnings. Sunak also faced questions over why he held a US green card – which allows permanent residence in America – until last year. 

His popularity among Conservative members also plummeted after he announced plans to raise the UK’s tax burden to a 70-year high by increasing National Insurance and corporation tax. In the Conservative leadership election that followed Johnson’s resignation, Sunak was comfortably defeated by Truss after she pledged to reverse his tax rises. 

But the former chancellor’s warning that his rival’s plans would lead to a surge in mortgage rates and a run on the pound proved prescient and helped rebuild his standing as a leader-in-waiting.