UK Conservative leader Sunak still hoping for unlikely win

Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak arrives at Broadcasting House ahead of his appearance on BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show in London, Britain 4 September, 2022.Reuters file photo

The UK Conservatives hoped Rishi Sunak would stabilise the party and country when they made him leader following his predecessors' chaotic tenures. Instead, he has led them to the brink of electoral wipeout.

The party's MPs installed the 44-year-old former financier in October 2022, after Liz Truss's 49-day premiership imploded when spooked markets moved against her tax-slashing plans.

Sunak succeeded to a point in stabilising the country's economy, but failed to stop bitter Tory infighting, or to make a dent in the persistent polling lead held by the opposition Labour Party.

Buoyed by rare pieces of economic good news, Sunak called the 4 July election in late May, despite not having to face the voters until early 2025.

He hoped the shock announcement would catch right-wingers Reform UK by surprise, and Labour's 20-point polling lead would shrink during the campaign.

But Sunak's campaign has lurched from one disaster to another.

By far the most damaging was Sunak's decision to leave early from D-Day commemoration events in France, provoking unilateral outrage and alienating the right wing whose votes he desperately needs.

Now they look set to vote en masse for Reform, led by Brexit talisman Nigel Farage.

He also had to apologise after Conservative candidates and the party's campaign chief were put under investigation over alleged bets placed on the date of the election before it was called.

All of which has left Sunak cutting an increasingly frustrated figure, shorn of the bullish rhetoric of the early campaign but still insisting the election result is not a foregone conclusion.

'Dishy Rishi'

The privately wealthy Sunak struggled to connect with regular voters hit hard by a cost-of-living crisis.

He was roundly mocked for suggesting he had an austere childhood because his family did not have satellite television, and his interactions with voters have often seemed awkward.

His current difficulties are a far cry from his rapid rise to power, becoming Britain's youngest prime minister of modern times at age 42, as well as the first of South Asian descent.

The observant Hindu was born in Southampton on England's south coast on May 12, 1980, to a family doctor father and a mother who ran a local pharmacy.

Sunak's grandparents were from Punjab in northern India and emigrated from eastern Africa in the 1960s, arriving in Britain with "very little", he has said.

Sunak was educated at the exclusive private Winchester College, then Oxford and Stanford universities.

During his Tory leadership bid, a video emerged of a 21-year-old Sunak talking about his friends.

"I have friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper-class, I have friends who are, you know, working-class," he says, before adding quickly: "Well, not working-class."

After making millions in finance, Sunak won the safe and overwhelmingly white Conservative seat of Richmond in Yorkshire, northern England, in 2015.

His Instagram-friendly profile earned him the media nickname of "Dishy Rishi".

An early backer of Brexit, he took over as finance minister in February 2020 -- a baptism of fire as the Covid pandemic erupted.

The details-oriented policy wonk was forced to craft an enormous economic support package at breakneck speed, which he regularly touts as one of his proudest achievements in politics.

Wealthy wife

The pandemic sullied his squeaky clean reputation, though, after he received a police fine for breaching Covid rules by joining a birthday gathering for then-prime minister Boris Johnson at Downing Street.

Sunak also faced difficult questions about the tax affairs of his wife Akshata Murty, whose father Narayana Murthy is the billionaire co-founder of IT giant Infosys.

In early 2022, newspapers reported she had non-domiciled status, meaning she had not been paying UK taxes on her Infosys returns.

The news hit Sunak's approval ratings and Murty announced that she would pay UK taxes on her global income.

The Sunaks met while studying in California and have two young daughters, plus a photogenic dog.

He insists his own family's experience, and that of his wife, are a "very Conservative" story of hard work and aspiration.

In July 2022, Sunak quit as finance minister, helping to trigger Johnson's resignation after one scandal too many and public anger at the government's Covid response.

Many Tories have never forgiven him and have harped against his leadership from the sidelines.

He insists only he has a "clear plan" backed by "bold action" to change Britain but voters look set to limit his time in office to less than two years.