Rishi Sunak’s 100 days as PM: can he turn things around?

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Celebrations may have been muted as Rishi Sunak spent his 100th day in office in the shadow of numerous dark clouds – and a few questions about his long-term future in No.10.

Although some might view it as a “meaningless milestone”, these days it’s “nothing to be sniffed at,” said Politico’s London Playbook, referencing the 44-day tenure of his predecessor Liz Truss.

But the mood in his party is not much improved. “There’s a new default conversation for Tory MPs at any Westminster drinks party,” said The Spectator’s political editor, Katy Balls.  “Is this 1992 or 1997? Is the party doomed or not?” In 1992, John Major pulled off a surprise victory, despite having been 20 points behind in opinion polls, but five years later, “with the Tories mired in accusations of sleaze, Major lost by such a landslide that his party was out of power for three terms”.

The first 100 days

Looking back at his time in office so far, one of Sunak’s biggest successes “came as soon he took office”, The Times said, when he brought “an end to the market turmoil that characterised Truss’s brief premiership”. Even so, “the underlying economic issues – double-digit inflation, stagnant growth, huge levels of borrowing – remain”. the paper added.

For that, Sunak is paying a political price. Polling commissioned by the paper suggested seven in ten voters didn’t believe Sunak would be PM after the next election.

While Conservative backbenchers “are not publicly indulging in the kind of permanent uproar they have done in recent times,” said the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, “scratch the surface and there is still disquiet”. One senior Tory MP told her “there are lots and lots of colleagues who just think the problems are insurmountable”.

Sunak’s “slick reputation” has suffered as he struggled “to battle the scandals engulfing his party”, said the i news site. He has had to content with government sleaze rows, several long-term strikes and the desire Boris Johnson has to either “show up or suggest he might show out the current PM”.

Who is Rishi Sunak?

The first Hindu to become prime minister, Sunak was born in Southampton to Yashvir and Usha Sunak. Kenya-born Yashvir was a GP, while Usha, originally from Tanzania, ran a local pharmacy.

He attended Winchester College boarding school, where he was head boy, before reading philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford.

After a career as an investment banker, Sunak entered politics in 2015, when he took over from former Tory leader William Hague as the MP for Richmond in Yorkshire.

Sunak faced a significant challenge in winning over the constituency. Local farmers who spoke to Tatler’s Ben Judah shortly before the election aired their thoughts on their new Conservative candidate with “that infamous turn of phrase, ‘I’m not racist, but…’”.

Such comments didn’t deter Sunak, although he told Sky News in 2020 that experiencing racist abuse “stings in a way that very few other things have”. 

Sunak married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of one of India’s richest men, in a two-day ceremony in 2009. The wedding was held in Bangalore and attended by Indian celebrities and politicians.

The couple met while studying at Stanford University, where Sunak was a Fulbright scholar. He had the support of Murthy’s family when he first entered politics seven years ago. His billionaire father-in-law, Narayana Murthy, was “so enthusiastic about Sunak’s parliamentary career that he’d flown in, and had even been leafleting on his behalf, wearing a Rishi sweatshirt”, Judah wrote.

Sunak’s parliamentary career

Sunak’s political rise “has been uncommonly rapid”, said The New York Times. The FT noted that the 42 year-old is “younger than both Tony Blair and David Cameron when they became prime minister”. 

Until July 2019, Sunak was a junior minister in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. But after a stint as chief secretary to the Treasury, during which he was widely praised, Sunak was in the perfect position to take over when Sajid Javid quit as chancellor in February 2020.

The subsequent coronavirus outbreak in the UK left Sunak facing the challenge of steering the country through the economic consequences of the pandemic. 

In March 2020, he announced a £350bn package of loans and grants to help Britain cope with the impact of lockdown on the economy. Days later, Sunak introduced the furlough scheme through which the government paid millions of workers’ wages. 

He also oversaw the controversial Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which provided a government-backed discount in restaurants, cafes and pubs. The scheme was later criticised for potentially having caused a rise in Covid cases and costing the taxpayer “an eyewatering £849m after soaring way over budget”, said the Daily Mail

As the pandemic eased, Sunak was tasked with tackling the growing cost-of-living crisis. He faced criticism last year for axing the £20-a-week increase to Universal Credit that was part of the government’s emergency Covid support package. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that the cut – which slashed the incomes of six million people – would push more than 200,000 people into poverty.

“Just weeks before the cut was confirmed in July, the chancellor requested planning permission to build a private swimming pool, gym and tennis court at the Grade II-listed Yorkshire manor that Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, purchased for £1.5m in 2015,” openDemocracy’s Adam Bychawski reported.

His personal finances came under scrutiny in April when it emerged that Murthy’s non-domicile status had saved their family “millions” in tax payments in the UK.  

Sunak defended his wife’s financial arrangements, explaining: “Every single penny she earns in the UK she pays UK taxes on”, and “every penny that she earns internationally, for example in India, she would pay the full taxes on that”. 

He added: “it wouldn’t be reasonable or fair to ask her to sever ties with her country because she happens to be married to me”. 

What about the next 100 days?

“Senior Tories believe Sunak has only six to nine months to make an impact before the countdown to the next election becomes deafening,” says the Daily Mail.

Despite Labour’s 20-point lead, there are still MPs “who believe the election can still be narrowly won, though many of them, including those close to Sunak, believe he needs to be bolder on drawing new dividing lines – including on immigration”,  said The Guardian’s Jess Elgot. 

Sunak’s immediate future looks “set to be dominated by the highly anticipated bill to tackle Channel crossings”, said Politico’s London Playbook. In a Sun leader marking his first 100 days, Sunak said it will be published within “weeks” and “will change the law to send a message loud and clear: if you come here illegally, you will be detained and removed.”

By taking these “drastic steps on immigration”, Sunak will “put his political credentials on the line”, said The Spectator’s Balls. “If it works – and stranger things have happened in the past seven years – the mood in both the party and the country could shift.”

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