Britain’s Rishi Sunak struggles with missteps while trying to lift Conservatives ahead of elections

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has portrayed himself as thorough and evidence-led throughout his relatively brief political career, but there’s always been a nagging question over the keenness of his political antenna.

The general election campaign over the past five weeks has clearly shown that he hasn’t got the instinctive touch of some of his predecessors, such as Tony Blair or even Boris Johnson.

Sunak’s campaign has seen several missteps since he announced the July 4 election date in the pouring rain in late May, including his suspension of candidates mired in a scandal over betting on the date of the election — a week after Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pressed him to do so.

The biggest blunder — one that prompted him to apologize — was his decision to leave the 80-year D-day commemorations in northern France on June 6 early.

Critics said the decision to skip the international event that closed the commemorations showed disrespect to the veterans and diminished the U.K.’s international standing. Other world leaders including President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy were all present. As was Starmer, who is the favorite to replace Sunak as prime minister.

Since then, Sunak hasn’t been able to lift the poll ratings for his Conservative Party, which have been depressed over the past few years as a result of the actions of his two immediate predecessors.

First, Johnson was forced to quit after being adjudged to have lied to Parliament over breaches of coronavirus lockdowns at his offices in Downing Street. Then, trust in the Conservatives tanked during the chaotic — and traumatic — 49-day leadership of Liz Truss, whose unfunded tax cuts roiled financial markets and sent borrowing costs surging.

Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives are likely to lose power for the first time in 14 years.

“The Conservatives badly needed to deliver a boost to Sunak’s leader approvals or their leader-focused campaign risks reinforcing weakness rather than building strength,” said Rob Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester. “A clumsy and error-strewn Sunak campaign has, however, entirely failed to shift the dial on leadership approval.”

It must be said that Sunak isn’t the most experienced campaigner. He’s only been a member of parliament since 2015 and he has never been prominent in, let alone at the forefront of, a general election campaign.

Sunak became prime minister in October 2022 when he pitched himself as a stable pair of hands to replace Truss. He has reminded voters that he had warned Conservative Party members about the recklessness of Truss’s economic plan when he challenged her to succeed Johnson.

“I was right then, when I warned about Liz Truss,” he said. “That’s why all of you can trust me now.”

On replacing Truss after an uncontested leadership battle, Sunak became Britain’s first leader of color, the first Hindu to become prime minister — and at 42, the youngest leader for more than 200 years.

Sunak, now 44, had enjoyed a rapid rise to the top within Conservative ranks. He was plucked from seemingly nowhere four years ago to become Treasury chief on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic.

Within weeks, he had to unveil the biggest economic support package any Chancellor of the Exchequer has ever had to outside wartime.

Smooth, confident and at ease with the march of modern technology, he was dubbed “Dishy Rishi” and quickly became one of the most trusted and popular faces within Johnson’s administration during the rigors of the pandemic.

As Treasury chief, Sunak was lauded for rolling out a COVID-19 job retention package that arguably saved millions of jobs. But it came at a cost, bringing the country’s tax burden to its highest level since the 1940s.

That’s not something he’s particularly comfortable with. Sunak is instinctively a low-tax, small-state politician who idolizes former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In his 20 months as prime minister, Sunak has struggled to keep a lid on bitter divisions within his Conservative Party. One side wants him to be much tougher on immigration and bolder in cutting taxes, while another urged him to move more to the centerground of politics, the space where, historically, British elections are won.

Sunak was born in 1980 in Southampton on England’s south coast to parents of Indian descent who were both born in East Africa. His father was a family doctor and his mother ran a pharmacy, whose accounts he’d often help with.

He has described how his parents saved to send him to Winchester College, one of Britain’s most expensive boarding schools. He then went to Oxford University to study politics, philosophy and economics — the degree of choice for future prime ministers.

He then got an MBA at Stanford University, which proved to be a launchpad for his subsequent career as a hedge fund manager at Goldman Sachs in the U.S. There, he met his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of the billionaire founder of Indian tech giant Infosys. They have two daughters.

The couple are the wealthiest inhabitants yet of No. 10 Downing Street, according to the Sunday Times’ 2024 Rich List, with an estimated fortune of 651 million pounds ($815 million). They’re even richer than King Charles III, a level of wealth that Labour leader Starmer says makes Sunak out of touch with the everyday realities and struggles of working people.

With his fortune secure, Sunak was elected to Parliament for the safe Tory seat of Richmond in Yorkshire in 2015. In Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum, he supported leaving the European Union. When “leave” unexpectedly won, Sunak enjoyed a meteoric rise that swiftly led him to Downing Street.

He’s not used to losing.

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