Will history be kinder to Rishi Sunak?

Will history be kinder to Rishi Sunak?

Rishi Sunak took over a poisoned cup from Liz Truss, who, in turn, inherited a trainwreck from Boris Johnson.

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Last Updated : 09 July 2024, 06:27 IST

Bengaluru offers a relatively safe getaway option for former British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he ponders his future following the Conservative Party’s election disaster.

His super-wealthy in-laws N R Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murthy could easily put him up at their bungalow, otherwise India’s high-tech heartland and the much-loved capital of Karnataka has plenty of snazzy hotels and luxury villas where he could hide indefinitely and lick his wounds.

The paramount need for a refuge — where he can feel safe and protected —comes in the wake of endless personal humiliations, mocking comments, and other experiences he has been obliged to endure immediately before, during, and after a general election that has forced the disgraced Conservatives to hand over power to Labour.

Sunak’s long-predicted downfall started to surface on May 22 when he stood in the pouring rain — streams of water pouring off his well-oiled hair — to make his surprise announcement of the July 4 election. No one inside his 10 Downing Street official residence, not even his wife, thought he would look less ridiculous with the protection of a simple umbrella.

When he announced his resignation a few days ago, one social media user highlighted how his wife Akshata Murty was standing behind him with an umbrella and commented, “RishiSunak leaving Downing Street. Note the umbrella. Not making that mistake again, so he has learned SOMETHING.”

More tell-tale signs of a coming disaster included Sunak’s decision to leave early from a ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of D-Day landings in France. Other world leaders stayed on in France as the British Prime Minister rushed back to take part in a television interview. At the time his party colleagues accused him of dereliction of duty.

A few days before the election he suffered another PR setback on TV, when he had to stand alongside the UK’s most tattooed woman. A deeply embarrassed Sunak did not know which way to look when Becky Holt, the country’s ‘most tattooed Mum’, appeared next to him, dressed only in a thong bikini.

On election night in his constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire, Sunak could not evade a political rival who stood directly behind him with a large ‘L’ ( L for loser) painted on the poster he was holding. Finally, a few hours after he conceded defeat, the outgoing prime minister could not block out a mocking crowd singing the Sound of Music song, ‘Goodbye, auf widersehen, adieu ..’

To be fair to Sunak, he cannot be held exclusively responsible for the July 4 political catastrophe. When he was appointed 20 months ago, he took over a poisoned cup from a prime minister who lasted only 49 days. Liz Truss, who subsequently lost her parliamentary seat, was decried by a critic as an “incompetent clown” responsible for economic mismanagement and sleaze that boosted inflation, hiked up interest rates, and caused a run on the pound.

Her predecessor, Boris Johnson, was even worse. His indifference to allegations of corruption, cronyism, and lies led the way to his downfall in September 2022. He was forced to step down after an inquiry concluded he had misled parliament about the parties that were held in 10 Downing Street — “vomit on the carpet’ as characterised by one insider — during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunak restored political and economic stability and no accusations of personal money-making or corruption were levelled against him. His own wealth and his wife’s massive personal fortune estimated at £750 million, means he could afford to stand away from the sleaze associated with so many politicians.

These positives, notwithstanding, weary British voters have elected a new Labour government led by Sir Keir Starmer that promises policies bringing new and immediate changes to their daily lives. These include a fresh look at links with countries such as India where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has little in common with Labour’s inclusive and progressive instincts.

Labour’s new Foreign Secretary David Lammy has spoken about his optimism for cordial relations ahead with India, but analysts in New Delhi should remember Labour’s 2019 emergency motion that observed “there is a major humanitarian crisis taking place in Kashmir” and calling for “international observers to enter the region.” This is the same motion that noted “the enforced disappearance of civilians”, the “overall prevalence of human rights violations”, and “the house arrest or imprisonment of mainstream politicians and activists”, adding that “the people of Kashmir should be given the right of self-determination.”

Indian-origin politicians from the Conservative Party, such as Priti Patel, may yearn for the golden years of engagement with the BJP, but they are unable or unwilling to stick their necks out for the Indian-origin Prime Minister who restored a measure of dignity to their ousted party.

Whether it is his height, his choice of shoes and suits, or his wife’s selection of hats and dresses, Sunak continues to be lampooned at every opportunity and remains the butt of ridicule. Worst of all are the racial slurs he is obliged to endure.

During the recently concluded election campaign, a supporter of the Right-wing Reform Party led by Nigel Farage called Sunak a “f**king Paki (Pakistani)”, a racial slur for those of South Asian descent.

The words hurt, as Southampton-born Sunak admitted in a subsequent media interview.

"My two daughters have to see and hear Reform people who campaign for Nigel Farage calling me an effing Paki. It hurts and it makes me angry, and I think he has some questions to answer," Sunak revealed last week.

"I don't repeat those words lightly, I do so deliberately because this is too important not to call out clearly for what it is."

The impact on his family of this kind of name-calling, in addition to the long list of other degrading comments, will inevitably affect future choices of where Sunak lives and the professional choices he pursues. He says he intends to remain a member of parliament and head of the Conservatives, until a new leader is chosen, but the future of his wife and two young daughters is now his highest priority.

(The writer is a London-based senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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