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UK Breaking News: Rishi Sunak becomes British prime minister after meeting with King Charles III
Sunak is the U.K.’s third leader in seven weeks, taking the helm of a country facing political and economic crises after Liz Truss’ disastrous tenure.
Former finance minister Rishi Sunak took office as British prime minister Tuesday, the latest leader of the ruling Conservative Party hoping to break a cycle of political chaos and start to address the country’s grim economic mess.
Sunak, the first British Asian to assume the role and a multimillionaire former banker, met with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace as part of a ceremonial transfer of power known as “kissing hands.”
After receiving Liz Truss’ official resignation, the new monarch formally appointed Sunak prime minister and invited him to form a government.
Sunak is now the U.K.’s third leader in seven weeks.
Truss became the 15th prime minister of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign just 49 days ago — the shortest term in British political history. Now each of their successors stands in their place, a mark of the tumult that has beset the world’s sixth-largest economy.
In a farewell speech outside No. 10 Downing St. early Tuesday, Truss made no apology for her brief and calamitous tenure, instead standing by the raft of tax cuts — since abandoned — which sent markets spiraling and then spelled her lightspeed demise.
Her short time as prime minister had, she said, left her “more convinced than ever that we need to be bold and confront the challenges that we face.”
After meeting with the king, Sunak will return to Downing St., make his first speech as leader and appoint his Cabinet, personnel who will give a sense of how he hopes to tackle the plummeting fortunes of the country’s economy and his own political party.
“The United Kingdom is a great country but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” he said in a 90-second speech after winning the leadership contest Monday. “We now need stability, and unity, and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together.”
Truss’ disastrous tenure has helped Sunak take power not long after he lost a previous leadership contest to her. But even in a few short weeks Truss has made her successor’s job undoubtedly harder.
She attempted to introduce a hardline set of free-market capitalist policies including tax cuts for high earners — without explaining how she would pay for it all.
That sent markets haywire, with the pound plummeting and borrowing costs rising, something Sunak correctly predicted would happen during their leadership race.
It soon became clear that Truss no longer had the backing of her bitterly divided party, let alone her country — she leaves office with an approval rating of just 6%, according to one poll.
He would have faced a colossal task without this upheaval: The U.K. is already mired in a daunting cost-of-living crisis that means millions of people may struggle to eat and heat their homes this winter.
Now he must seek to address this, as well as ameliorate the damage wrought by the rapidly-reversed experiment with “Trussanomics.”
“Rishi Sunak really is facing an absolutely gargantuan challenge,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told NBC News. “He does face really, really big problems that are not just economic but also, of course, electoral.”
At 42, Sunak will be the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years. The son of African-born Hindus of Indian descent, he is also the country’s first ethnic minority leader in 140 years, after Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the 1800s, who was of Jewish descent but a practicing Christian.
Though Sunak is a former banker, it’s through his wife’s father, an Indian software tycoon, that the couple sits on an estimated 730 million-pound fortune ($825 million) — making them richer than the king and Camila, the queen consort.
Having a new prime minister is usually a big deal in the U.K.
It happened only four times between Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and David Cameron in 2010. But Britons may be forgiven for being far more weary today, with Sunak the fifth Conservative prime minister in a little over six years.
The latest round of upheaval started in July when Boris Johnson was forced to quit after a string of scandals prompted mass resignations from his government. Sunak, his finance minister at the time, was first among them.
He was also the favorite to replace Johnson but was surprisingly beaten by Truss, whose tax-cutting was more popular among the Conservative Party’s 200,000 members. Now, after Truss’ rapid resignation and Johnson’s aborted comeback bid, Sunak has the top job.
In the U.K., the party with the most lawmakers in the House of Commons can appoint a new leader without holding a nationwide election.
That dynamic has prompted criticism from the left-of-center opposition Labour Party, but with Labour soaring in the polls and the Conservatives demoralized, Sunak is likely to focus on steadying markets and his colleagues.
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