Breaking the mould - GulfToday

Breaking the mould

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rishi Sunak 55

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outside 10 Downing Street in central London.

It is ironic that British voters should choose Conservatives rather than Labour to repair Britain’s economy broken by Conservative policies. The appointment of Rishi Sunak to the top job has boosted popular confidence in his ability to overcome the country’s financial, economic and social crises, according to a poll conducted for the Observer.

Prime Minister Sunak has drafted a new plan for tax increases and spending cuts to counter the disastrous policy of lowering taxes for the rich and paying for public services by borrowing. His predecessor Liz Truss, who developed this policy, lasted only 44 days in the job Sunak was trained to do at university and in business.

The Observer wrote, “While Labour still leads the Tories on most issues, 33 per cent [of respondents] said they would prefer ‘a Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak to manage the economy, with 29 per cent choosing ‘a Labour government led by Keir Starmer.’”

It is ironic also that Conservatives are returning to the party’s fold now that Sunak is prime minister although when given the chance the majority of party members voted for Truss rather than Sunak: a white woman rather than a brown man. Conservative legislators — who know both candidates — were wiser than their constituents as they chose Sunak over Truss.

Rishi Sunak is not only Britain’s first Asian and first Hindu prime minister but, at 42, the youngest in 200 years. He prepared for this post by serving as Chancellor of the Ex-chequer from 2020 to 2022 and Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 2019 to 2020. He has been a member of parliament since 2015 and before entering politics was employed at Goldman Sachs and two hedge fund firms.

Born in 1980 in Southampton, Hampshire, to Punjabi Hindu parents who migrated to Britain from Africa during the expulsion of Asians by independent African countries during the 1960s. His father — born and raised in Kenya, is a general practitioner in the National Health Service and his mother —  born in Tanzania — is a pharmacist. African Asians had a difficult time settling in Britain during this period due to widespread racism.

His parents clearly did their best to insulate him against discrimination by providing him with an elite education. Rishi Sunak attended Winchester College, a boys’ independent boarding school, and read Philosphy, Economics and Politics at Lincoln College, Oxford. In 2006, he earned an MBA from Stanford University in California where he met his equally high powered wife, Akshata Murty, daughter of the founder of the Indian tech firm Infosys. Her shares are estimated to be worth $800 million. They married in 2009 in Bangalore.

Having pledged transparency and accountability during his campaign for the premiership, Sunak and his wife have not been open about their affairs. He retained until last year a US green card permitting him to have employment and permanent residence in that country. Murty, an Indian citizen, had non-domociled status in the UK so that she has paid a reduced tax on her worldwide income. At her death her heirs would not pay UK inheritance tax, which has been estimated $325 million.

While chancellor, Sunak was criticised for cutting down on welfare programmes while living luxuriously. They own a country mansion, a four-bedroom mews house in London, and a flat in Santa Monica, California, and entertain lavishly.

Sunak began his career in politics while at Oxford by taking an internship at the Conservative party’s headquarters and has placed himself on the right. He supported Boris Johnson for the party leadership and post of prime minister and backed leaving the European Union (Brexit) in the belief divorce would free Britain to adopt innovative economic policies. He opposed lockdown early in the covid pandemic, a stand which led to rampant infection and longer and a more damaging lockdown later on. Sunak is said to have close ties to right-wing think tanks. Sunak intends to focus on the economy with the aim of dragging Britain out of the mess caused in large part by Brexit.

Foreign affairs is of secondary importance to him, except where they affect the economy and domestic politics. He is an “unconditional friend of Israel” and has vowed to fight the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement to pressure Israel to halt colonisation of Palestinian territory and end repression in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

At a Conservative Friends of Israel event in August, Sunak declared Jerusalem is “indisputably the historic capital” of Israel and said there was a “very strong case” for shifting the British embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem despite strong opposition from the international community.

During a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sunak referred to himself as a “visual representation” of the historic links between Britain and India. He also expressed the hope that the two countries could “make good progress in negotiations to finalise a comprehensive free trade agreement.”

While chancellor, Sunak developed a friendly relationship with US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin and has maintained frequent contact with treasury officials who hope he will end the chaos which reigned in London over the past year.

Although Sunak backed Brexit, he is seen as a pragmatist when negotiating over trade between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic as he is unlikely to risk a trade war with Europe by unilaterally violating the treaty agreed between the bloc and predecessor Boris Johnson.

Sunak reaffirmed Britain’s support or NATO’s domestically popular proxy war against Russia in Ukraine and vowed to make his first call as prime minister to that country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to tell him that Britain would continue to feed the war effort, a stand that is popular in Britain. However, Sunak also, realistically, said the “terrible” war in Ukraine “must be seen successfully to its conclusion.”

He backs Britain’s ties with Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates which he sees as an important partner. He would like to conclude negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council on a free trade deal, a key goal of Brexiteers.

His decision to stay away from the climate change conference in Egypt has created concern over the commitment of Britain, 17th on the list of the world’s worst polluters, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, Johnson played a leading role in last year’s conference in Scotland and Britain was expected to hand over the chairmanship to Egypt. Sunak did not seem to realise that Britain’s economy depends on when and how the Western industrial powers address climate change.

Photo: TNS

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