LONDON - Britain faces serious economic challenges and needs stability and unity, Mr Rishi Sunak said on Monday, in his first public speech after being declared leader of the governing Conservative Party and soon-to-be prime minister.
“There is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” Mr Sunak said. “We now need stability and unity, and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together.”
During the speech at the Conservative Party headquarters, he added that he was honoured to have the support of his party’s lawmakers and said he will serve with integrity and humility.
“It is the greatest privilege of my life to be able to serve the party I love and give back to the country I owe so much to,” Mr Sunak said at the Conservative Party headquarters.
During his short speech, Mr Sunak also paid tribute to his predecessor Liz Truss for her service.
Earlier, a spokesman for Ms Truss said a handover to Mr Sunak will not happen on Monday.
The spokesman outlined that discussions are being held on the timing and choreography of the transition.
“I can confirm that the transition won’t be taking place today,” he said, adding there were discussions between the outgoing and incoming prime ministers and King Charles.
Mr Sunak will be the third British prime minister in less than two months and the first non-white leader after other candidates quit the race to lead the Conservative Party.
He faces the immense task of steering a deeply divided country through an economic downturn set to leave millions of people poorer.
Mr Sunak, 42, the youngest PM in more than a century and one of the wealthiest politicians in Westminster, will be asked to form a government by King Charles.
Mr Sunak replaces Ms Truss, the outgoing leader who only lasted 44 days in the job.
He defeated centrist politician Ms Penny Mordaunt, who failed to get enough backing from lawmakers to enter the ballot, while the former prime minister Boris Johnson withdrew from the contest saying he could no longer unite the party.
Shortly before Ms Mordaunt withdrew from the race, the BBC reported that 193 Tory MPs out of 357 publicly supported Mr Sunak, while according to the same analysis, Ms Mordaunt had 26.
“This decision is an historic one and shows, once again, the diversity and talent of our party,” Ms Mordaunt said in a statement as she withdrew from the race just minutes before the winner was due to be announced. “Rishi has my full support.”
The pound and British government bond prices jumped briefly on news of Ms Mordaunt’s withdrawal, but soon returned to their previous levels.
According to an ITV reporter, the King was returning to London and could accept Ms Truss’s resignation either later on Monday or on Tuesday.
Mr Sunak, the former finance minister, will be tasked with restoring stability to a country reeling from years of political and economic turmoil.
The multi-millionaire former hedge fund boss would be expected to launch deep spending cuts to try to rebuild Britain’s fiscal reputation, just as the country slides into a recession, dragged down by the surging cost of energy and food.
He will also inherit a political party that has fractured along ideological lines, a challenge that damaged the fortunes of several former Conservative leaders.
Britain has been locked in a state of perma-crisis ever since it voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, unleashing a battle at Westminster over the future of the country that remains unresolved to this today.
Mr Johnson, the face of the Brexit vote, led his party to a landslide victory in 2019, only to be driven out of office less than three years later after a series of scandals. His successor Ms Truss lasted just over six weeks before she quit over an economic policy that trashed the country’s economic credibility.
Economists have questioned whether Mr Sunak can tackle the country’s finances while holding the party’s multiple warring factions together.
Finance minister Jeremy Hunt – the fourth person in that role in four months – is due to present a budget on Oct 31 to plug a black hole in the public finances that is expected to have ballooned to up to 40 billion pounds (S$64.27 billion).
Mr Sunak came to national attention when, aged 39, he became finance minister under Mr Johnson just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Britain, developing the successful furlough scheme.
The former Goldman Sachs analyst will be the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of Indian origin.
His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a period when many people from Britain’s former colonies moved to the country to help it rebuild after the Second World War.
After graduating from Oxford University, he went to Stanford University where he met his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father is Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys Ltd. REUTERS