Since Britain’s first prime minister took office in 1721, a total of 55 people have held the job. They’ve come from a variety of backgrounds and political persuasions, but they’ve all had at least one thing in common: They were white.
The next prime minister may not be.
Rishi Sunak, a 42-year-old multimillionaire of Indian heritage and former Treasury chief, is one of two finalists for the job, which will be filled early next month with a vote by rank-and-file members of the Conservative Party.
Polls show him trailing Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who would be the third female prime minister.
But Sunak’s rapid ascent to the elite ranks of British politics has unleashed complicated feelings about race and class in a nation that is still defined in many ways by its legacy as a colonial power.
In a country of 63 million that is 87% white, Asians are the biggest minority, at 7%. Most have their roots in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all of which were part of the British Empire until independence in 1947.
The earliest immigrants faced employment bans and other forms of discrimination. The situation improved over time, and people of Indian descent in particular have become one of the country’s most economically successful ethnic groups.
At the same time, immigration has become a political tinderbox, and hate crimes against minorities — including a spate of vandalism and burglaries targeting Indian mosques and Hindu temples — have risen during the pandemic.
“It’s striking to see a British Indian try for such a top position,” said Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank that studies sentiments on immigration, identity and race.
Sunak grew up in the port city of Southampton, a two-hour drive southwest of London. His parents were born in East Africa — which became home to a significant population of Indian descent during British colonial rule — and immigrated to Britain more than 60 years ago.
His father was a doctor, and his mother ran a local pharmacy, careers that afforded them the ability to send Sunak to one of Britain’s top boarding schools, Winchester College.
He went on to Oxford University and then to Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund before earning an MBA at Stanford University.
It was there that he met Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian IT company billionaire.
Already wealthy from his finance jobs, Sunak became much richer after marrying Murty in 2009, in what the Indian press dubbed “Bangalore’s wedding of the year.”
For the Conservative Party, which has long struggled to attract nonwhite voters, Sunak’s entry into politics in 2014 was a gift.
In his first election, he won a seat in Parliament representing a wealthy, reliably conservative district in North Yorkshire, where he owned an estate.
He quickly rose through the ranks of the party, gaining favor for his financial expertise and charm.
In early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed him Treasury chief.
It was in that role that Sunak became a national name, mainly for overseeing a popular program that kept paychecks flowing during pandemic-related lockdowns.
His youthful looks didn’t hurt. Trim and often pictured in a slim-fitting suit, flashing his teeth, he became known in the tabloids as “Dishy Rishi.”
He has solid conservative credentials, supporting Brexit — which was fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment — and railing against “woke nonsense” that he says is “permeating public life.”
At the same time, he has talked proudly about his Hindu faith and celebrated the success of immigrants such as his parents. While acknowledging his privileged upbringing, he has spoken about facing racism — including being taunted with slurs — and how that “stings in a way that few other things have.”
Sunak was well positioned to seek the job of prime minister after Johnson — who had been battered by a series of embarrassing scandals — announced that he would leave office Sept. 5.
As Sunak survived round after round of votes by his party’s lawmakers to whittle down the field of potential successors, the country
reacted to his candidacy with a mix of celebration and consternation.
“It is another proud moment in the history of the Conservative Party,” said Nayaz Qazi, the London-based director of Conservative Friends of India. “The leadership campaign has shown how rich the diversity of the Conservative Party is and how it reflects modern Britain.”
Haroon Iqbal, a 50-year-old immigrant from India who moved to Nottingham in the 1970s, said Sunak “is not like me or the people I know.”
“He’s rich. I don’t know if he has ever worked a normal job, and his ideas are far too conservative for me,” Iqbal said last week while visiting London’s Brick Lane, a street known for its Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi eateries. “But of course it is nice to see another Indian having big success and being at the top.”
In India, glowing coverage of Sunak and his campaign has been a fixture in the press. Much of the interest stems from his close ties to Indian elites through his wife and his frank discussion of his religion while on the campaign trail.
“It is the Gita that has given me strength,” he said during a recent campaign visit to a Hindu temple in London that was covered by the Times of India — a reference to the Bhagavad Gita, a well-known sacred text.
His Indian fandom will likely do little to help Sunak in the race against Truss.
She is widely seen as having a more appealing pitch to voters on the economy, which, amid inflation and rising energy costs, is one of the public’s biggest concerns.
Both candidates have promised to slash taxes. But 47-year-old Truss — who also went to Oxford and has been a prominent leader in the party — has more experience in government, having joined Parliament in 2010.
She has served as justice secretary, chief secretary to the head of the Treasury and international trade secretary. As foreign secretary, she has used her pulpit to make pronouncements calling out Russia’s war on Ukraine and to announce major sanctions against Russian businesses and nationals.
“The economy pledges are on her side in terms of the leadership contest,” said Tom Quinn, a government professor at the University of Essex.
Also working to Truss’ advantage is the selection process, in which a relatively small group of party members — about 160,000 — vote online and by mail.
“This is an older and whiter group than the general population that votes Conservative,” said Paul Whiteley, a professor at the University of Essex who studies electoral behavior and public opinion. “They are also not all rich. Many have a resentment of the rich, which gives Truss an advantage compared to Sunak, who is seen as part of the ultra-wealthy.”
Critics have assailed Sunak as a “globalist” and point out that he held a U.S. green card until last year.
It doesn’t help that he owns properties in London, North Yorkshire and Santa Monica.
In a video from his college days that recently went viral, Sunak acknowledges having “no working-class friends.”
In another widely circulated image, he appears perplexed at how to pay for a fill-up at a gas station.
Columnists have railed against him for donning a bespoke suit that cost more than $4,000 and suede Prada loafers retailing for nearly $600.
At a debate last month, Sunak rebuffed such critiques, saying, “I think people judge people by their character rather than their bank account.”