Author: Nguh Nwei Asanga Fon
On Monday, 24 October 2022, the Tories elected Rishi Sunak as their new leader. Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the Conservative backbenchers’ ‘1992 Committee,’ announced Sunak as the new Conservative Party leader at 2:03 pm (London time) after his two potential contesters Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt backed out respectively on the eve and two minutes before the deadline of candidacy for the party’s leadership scheduled at 2:00 pm (Johnston, 2022; Elgot et al., 2022). This paved the way for Sunak to make history on Tuesday 25 October as the first person of colour and youngest person to become prime minister in Britain. His premiership has generated much excitement, and enthusiasm in his country of origin (India) with some, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Modi, 2022), interpreting his accession to the premiership as ‘A Diwali gift’ (Al Jazeera, 2022) since it came at the time of the Hindu religious festival of light.
So how did this son of Punjabi parents with East African roots (a Kenyan-born father and a Tanzanian-born mother) (Sharma, 2022), who migrated to England in the 1960s, become the Prime Minister of Britain? One word holds the key to unravelling this ‘Obama-like’ political fairy-tale—TIME. In politics, timing is everything. The rise of Sunak is an eloquent demonstration of this maxim. The sequence of events that ushered him to 10 Downing Street can best be illustrated as a game of good timing and bad timing among Tory (Conservative Party) politicians seeking to lead the party after Brexit. The story begins with the success of the ‘Leave’ camp in the 2016 EU Referendum held in the UK, which led to the resignation of then-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (Al Jazeera, 2016).
Enters Theresa Mary May, who won the Tory leadership contest unopposed on 11 July 2016 after her rival Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the race (BBC, 2016). At a time when Brexit had exposed an intra-party divide within the Tories, with 186 members voting to remain in the EU and 141 voting to leave (Lynch, 2017), May emerged more or less a consensus candidate. Though the former Home Secretary under Cameron’s government was officially part of the Remain camp, she treaded cautiously with supporters of the Leave camp within her party (FRANCE24, 2016). By staying above the fray in the bitter Brexit battle that left many of her peers harbouring bad blood against each other, May positioned herself as the right person to reunite the party. In other words, her time had come and she seized the occasion and became Britain’s second female prime minister after Margaret Thatcher. However, implementing Brexit proved too complex for May as a series of deadlocks and turmoil led to her resignation announcement on 24 May 2019 (Al Jazeera, 2019). May have had the right timing to launch her bid for the Tory leadership; however, she wasn’t the person Britain needed at the time to navigate her out of EU waters. May have had the right timing to launch her bid for the Tory leadership but she wasn’t able to stand the test of time when it comes to navigating the UK out of the EU.
Then came Boris Johnson, one of the torchbearers of the Brexit campaign. For someone who had previously expressed fondness for the EU, going as far as calling himself “a fan of the European Union” (MacAskill, 2019), becoming a leading Brexiteer seemed far-fetched. However, Boris saw in Brexit his moment of glory. Endorsing Brexit was going to cost him a rift with the Tory establishment but it could at the same time offer him the ticket to 10 Downing Street. With the failure of May, most Tory MPs rallied behind Boris and he not only won the Tory leadership and replaced May in July 2019 but also went ahead to give his party a historic victory in the general elections in December 2019 (The Guardian, 2019). However, it was only a matter of time before Boris’s complicated relationship with the truth (evidenced by previous instances of lack of candour) to catch up with him as dishonesty over the Partygate and the Chris Pincher scandals brought him down (Grierson, 2021).
Then Liz Truss entered the office, seizing the opportunity presented by severe economic hardship induced by skyrocketing inflation and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to appeal to Conservative voters with a promise of tax cuts on day one. Her main rival, Rishi Sunak, warned that Truss’s fiscal policies would lead to economic instability, but his caution was overlooked. Truss resigned just 44 days after assuming office, as her fiscal policy ignited economic turmoil, proving Sunak’s prediction was correct (Al Jazeera, 2022).
Now we have Sunak. The premiership seems to have sought him this time, not the other way around. Whether or not he rises to the occasion and fulfils the enormous expectations and aspirations centred on him remains to be seen, and time will give the response. However, as of now, it appears to be that Sunak’s time has come.
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Nguh Nwei Asanga Fon is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU), Famagusta, North Cyprus. His main research interests include governance, development studies, conflict resolution, foreign policy, and Africa in international relations. He has publications in publications in peer-reviewed journals, academic blogs, and international conference presentations. He also serves as a reviewer in two peer-reviewed journals. Fon is a research fellow with the International Governance Institute (IGI) Cameroon, and a member of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS).