In a momentous day, Britain’s first south Asian prime minister, who became the Conservative Party leader on Diwali day , has vowed to unite the country and his riven party.
Speaking on the steps of Number 10, Rishi Sunak, a practising Hindu, told the country that he would be a compassionate Conservative.
Indians all over the world took to social media describing his anointment as a “Diwali gift” and a celebration of “75 years of its independence from British colonial rule”.
Media commentators acknowledged that his achievement of claiming the highest political office in the UK smashed the “racial glass ceiling to smithereens”.
At 42, Sunak became the youngest post-colonial PM and managed to do so after being elected just seven years ago (2015) to the Richmond constituency in Yorkshire when William, now Lord Hague, stepped down.
On Tuesday (25) he addressed the country in a serious tone.
“Right now, our country is facing a profound economic crisis,” he said.
“The aftermath of Covid still lingers.
“Putin’s war in Ukraine has destabilised energy markets and supply chains the world over.
“I fully appreciate how hard things are and I understand too that I have work to do to restore trust after all that has happened.”
“All I can say is that I am not daunted.
“I know the high office I have accepted, and I hope to live up to its demands.”
South Asian parliamentarians former party chairs and commentators have been quick to recognise Sunak’s achievement.
“It is the biggest Diwali present given by an Indian to not only the United Kingdom, but also the 1.5 billion Indians settled worldwide,” Lord Rami Ranger, founder of Sun Mark Ltd and Tory peer told Eastern Eye.
“It will boost their self-esteem and respect that they have the ability and the knowledge to win the highest office of any country.
“He will be one of the most effective prime ministers in the most challenging circumstances facing the nation.
“We have a Ukraine crisis, we have escalating food prices, escalating fuel prices, the party is destroyed.
“The country needs to be united, and the economy has to be turned around to make people feel that they are being looked after.”
The former chancellor beat off his main challenger Penny Mordaunt, who dramatically pulled out of the race at the last moment.
The only other possible contender, ex-prime minister, Boris Johnson, ruled himself out on Sunday (23) evening.
Johnson claimed that he had “cleared the very high hurdle of 102 nominations” but concluded that “this is simply not the right time”.
Other parliamentarians described the achievement as “momentous”, “unbelievable”, and that they did not “expect an Asian PM in my lifetime”.
The director of think tank British Future, Sunder Katwala said, “The appointment of Rishi Sunak as Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister is an historic moment for the UK.
“His achievement will be a source of pride to many British Asians, particularly older generations, and demonstrates to all of the UK that ethnicity or faith are no barrier to attaining Britain’s highest public office.
“Sunak’s fellow Hindus marking Diwali tonight will see this as a reason for added celebration.
“As chancellor, Sunak said that lighting ceremonial candles on the steps of Downing Street was a special moment.
“Now he will do so as PM.”
In 2014, the former prime minister, David Cameron, told the GG2 Leadership and Diversity Awards, run by Eastern Eye’s parent company AMG, that “One day I want to hear that title prime minister followed by a British Asian name.”
Lord Andrew Feldman was chairman of the party between 2010 and 2016.
He told this newspaper that neither Cameron nor he expected a south Asian PM in Downing Street so soon.
It began because the peer realised so few south Asians were joining the party despite having similar values of fiscal responsibility, hard work and loyalty to family.
“When I asked my friend, [Lord] Dolar Popat, why that was the case, he explained to me that the problem was not one of ideology but of engagement.
“The party needed to make much more of an effort to connect with all elements of the Asian communities and to ‘smile more’.
“So, with that in mind, and with the support of David Cameron, we set about a program of extensive engagement with the Asian communities.
“We actively encouraged applications from British Asians to the candidates list and supported them through the process.
“I remember being thrilled when in 2015 our efforts were rewarded with far higher levels of support in the Asian communities than had been seen in previous elections.
“I also remember taking particular pride in the fact that a rising young star, Rishi Sunak, was selected to replace William Hague in Richmond, Yorkshire, at that time the safest Conservative seat in the country.
“This demonstrated to me just how much the party had changed.
“In fact, as Rishi recently reminded me, I was so delighted that I invited him in for a cup of tea and a chat.
“How appropriate that his appointment coincides with the festival of Diwali, one of the greatest festivals in the Hindu faith, and I hope that he is able to find some time to celebrate the festival as he embarks on his momentous premiership.”
The new prime minister admitted the previous Conservative administration had made mistakes, which he would have to fix.
“I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda.
“This will mean difficult decisions to come.
“But you saw me during COVID doing everything I could to protect people and businesses with schemes like furlough.
“There are always limits, more so now than ever.
“But I promise you this, I will bring that same compassion to the challenges we face today.
“The government I lead it will not leave the next generation, your children and grandchildren with a debt that we were too weak to pay ourselves.”
Sunak promised to “work day in day out to deliver”, and his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.
“When the opportunity to serve comes along, you cannot question the moment, only your willingness,” he continued.
“So, I stand here before you ready to lead our country into the future.
“To put your needs above politics, to reach out and build a government that represents the very best traditions of my party.
“Together, we can achieve incredible things.
“We will create a future worthy of the sacrifices so many have made and fill tomorrow, and every day thereafter, with hope.”
Even the Labour London mayor recognised Sunak’s achievements.
“Politics aside,” tweeted Sadiq Khan, “I want to congratulate Rishi Sunak on making history today as Conservative leader and soon to be prime minister.”
The 1992 Committee rules meant that anyone wishing to stand had to have at least 100 MPs backing them.
The fact he won on Diwali day was not lost on some parliamentary colleagues.
One senior south Asian Tory told this newspaper, “This is as significant as the UK electing its first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
“She obviously won an election, and although this was not an election, he has come through a process.
“To be the first person of colour to become the prime minister, and for it to happen on Diwali day is truly a truly historic and auspicious day.”
Once Johnson declared he was not running, influential ministers and other so-called “big beasts” backed Sunak.
This left his remaining opponent tweeting two minutes before the 2pm deadline that she would be dropping out.
According to the BBC, Mordaunt had 26 publicly declared backers.
“I’ve said this time and time again, the great thing is the party understood it needed to change and embrace diversity,” said Baroness Sandy Verma, who was at the House of Lords while the result was being announced.
“What it’s managed to do over the past two decades is to demonstrate that very good people can get very good roles in government.
“That’s a testimony to the way the party has moved forward.”
Some south Asians still believe the Tories are the racist and nasty party.
But Conservative parliamentarians reminded Eastern Eye that theirs was the only party which has elected three female prime ministers, and now the first leader of colour, something Labour has failed to do.
“Today, I have an opportunity to see somebody from the south Asian communities as prime minister,” said Lady Verma.
“The biggest thing is not his ethnicity but his ability, and his ability is way, way above most people’s because he is calm, he’s got a real good grounding of what needs to be done, and being former chancellor, he understands what the books are telling him.
“So, whilst it’s great to say, we’ve got somebody from the south Asian communities, actually, we’ve got the most competent and able person who can take this country and put it back into the position of economic growth where we need it to be.”
The new prime minister has a basketful of headaches.
Sunak will need to tackle an ailing economy, a weak pound, high inflation, climbing interest rates, soaring energy bills and a cost-of-living crisis.
On top of that, said south Asian parliamentarians, he needs to fix a broken Conservative party heading for election defeat in two years.
“He must bring in talent, not his friends,” said Lord Ranger.
“He’s running a country, not his family, so he must make his cabinet stronger.
“This is where Liz Truss went wrong, and we must never repeat the mistake of the past.
“He has experience that you get when people oppose you.
“You can’t just side-line them because if you do, they will cause you more grief because they have nothing to lose.
“We have to get talent and not just cronies.”
It will be about the economy, Lord Popat told Eastern Eye.
“Rishi will be committed to fiscal responsibility.
“Economic responsibility is really the foundation of his political belief.
“I’m convinced that he will lead our country as a caring Conservative because he’s pretty much from the liberal centre ground, a forward-looking person like David Cameron.
“Politics is about ideas, and innovations will come, just as they came with Cameron and [George] Osborne during that premiership.”
Apart from the economy, one of Sunak’s biggest problems will be uniting a fractured party hell bent on destroying itself, said one unnamed Westminster source.
They questioned why the party even contemplated bringing back Boris Johnson, describing it as “a kamikaze, self-indulgent, ego-driven move”.
“It’s not just between left and right of the Conservative moderates,” they said.
“It’s between all sorts of different viewpoints on either Brexit, or approach to cutting taxes or cultural identity.
“There are many dimensions where there are different diverging views, and I think Rishi’s gonna have to use his skills, and not just think it’s just a matter of diplomacy.
“He must show leadership that he’s gonna make decisions that are in the best interest of the country, and then international interests, based on evidence, not on ideology.”
Another parliamentarian told Eastern Eye that Sunak would have to deal with the other nations in the United Kingdom.
“There are people who represent different viewpoints in different parts of the country,” they explained.
“There are obviously people from Wales and Scotland who represent the Conservative Party, although not a lot.
“But those are regions where the Conservatives have got work to do, and that’s not forgetting the differences between rural areas and urban areas, from northern towns to southern hamlet’s, it’s a pretty diverse country.
“You need to be able to create a big tent where everybody feels welcome, and everybody feels they’ve got a seat at the table, and their viewpoint is being heard.
“At the same time, it shouldn’t become a barrier to making sound and sensible decisions, just because there are lots of voices at the table.”
What the new prime minister must do, said another anonymous senior Westminster source, is to manage expectations.
“I hope people will be fair minded,” they said.
“I’d have to say in my experience, that is one thing that most of the British people are, fair minded.
“Everyone realises his inheritance is very challenging.
“We’re already arguably in a recession, we already have high inflation, we already have rising interest rates.
“So, his sort of challenge is to turn all of that around, and it would take a miracle to turn it around completely.
“But if you can demonstrate making real progress, we may be able to go to the country and say the plan is working, and let Rishi finish the job.”
Another south Asian parliamentarian said that Sunak would have a brief honeymoon period, but that he would have to prove his worth.
“People are crying out for leadership, and we haven’t had proper leadership, the sort people want, since the end of the pandemic,” they said.
“Rishi must work diligently and remain honest with the British people and take them on the journey together, protecting the most vulnerable in society.”
But others are more optimistic, and they are certain Sunak will succeed, turn around the economy and lead them into a general election victory.
“I’m not concerned at all, because he can turn the economy around,” said Lord Ranger.
“The economy is the litmus test of popularity, where people will judge him for what he has achieved and what he has delivered to the nation.
“The best thing is, under Rishi’s watch, there will be a free trade between UK and India.
“With 1.4 billion people with a huge market which is growing at the rate of six to seven per cent per annum, it’d be the mother of all free trade between two of the biggest economies of the world.
“That growth is significant, because it is a big economy not a small island or small country.
“Rishi being of Indian origin will have more empathy, more love, more respect for this country, and they will give him a lot more respect.”
But racism continues to be a problem in Britain.
One caller to Sangita Myska’s show on LBC over the weekend, Jeremy from Lowestoft in Suffolk, made clear that Sunak could not be English or patriotic.
The caller insisted that Boris Johnson was English, even though he was born in New York, and is thought to have Turkish heritage.
It prompted outrage from Nirj Deva, the first post-colonial Tory MP of colour.
“I have held my silence for far too long,” tweeted the former MP and MEP.
“As the first post empire BAME immigrant Conservative MP I went through hell to get there.
“In 80 + seat selections the killer question was ‘You have an excellent CV but what are your local roots?’”
Speaking to Eastern Eye, Deva said he would not expel Jeremy until he had spoken to him to explain why he was wrong.
“I would recommend we explain to Jeremy that life has changed, and that these values are not supportable and give him the choice and say if he wants to continue to believe these things, then he should leave the party voluntarily.”
Lord Ranger had a more robust response.
“What would I say to bigoted men?” he began.
“That twice in first and second world wars, over a million strong Indian soldiers came to defend the king and empire.
“They should know that hundreds of thousands died, hundreds of thousands of people were injured.
“They will not tell you that, which make them hypocrites and ungrateful to those who shed their blood for their freedom.
“So, grow up and live in the 21st century.
“They bring disgrace, and they do not bring anything good to the party.”
Sunak will also face pressure from south Asian communities, said sources, because they will expect him to tackle institutional, structural and systemic racial inequalities.
Something that was started by former prime minister, Theresa May.
“In terms of areas that relate to social and racial justice, he is going to have to calculate the way to tackle these problem areas,” they said.
“He must see whether he can systematically remove the barriers and get to the root causes of the disparities.
“So, it may be that it isn’t a south Asian problem.
“For example, it is increasingly evident that white working-class families are disadvantaged in the education system.
“He must unify the country and make sure that he carries people with him, and he’ll need to demonstrate that he’s tackling all these issues for the entire population.”
Tory parliamentarians and other sources have told Eastern Eye that ultimately Sunak will be judged on what he delivers for as long as he in prime minister.
“Most of the public will rightly say that Rishi Sunak’s faith or ethnicity should not be an issue,” said British Future director, Sunder Katwala.
“They will judge him on his policies and his performance, at this extraordinarily difficult time to take office, rather than on his background.
“But we should not overlook the significance of this moment for our society.
“When Rishi Sunak was born in Southampton in 1980, there had been no Asian or black MPs at all in the post-war era.
“Now we see Britain’s diversity reflected at the very top of British politics.”