LONDON — Former finance minister Rishi Sunak won the race to be Britain's next prime minister Monday, the first British Asian to assume the role and the third leader in seven weeks of a country roiled by political and economic chaos.
Sunak will become the latest leader of the ruling Conservative Party to enter the revolving door of No. 10 Downing St., following Liz Truss' resignation just 44 days after taking office. Her scandal-plagued predecessor, Boris Johnson, dropped his bid for a comeback Sunday.
In his first public statement after the results were announced, Sunak said the country faces a “profound economic challenge.”
He went on to pledge to work for “stability and unity,” and added that he would make it his “utmost priority” to unite the party and the country.
Sunak’s victory was confirmed after his only other challenger, Penny Mordaunt, failed to secure the support of enough of her fellow lawmakers before the deadline.
"Rishi Sunak is therefore elected as leader of the Conservative Party," Graham Brady, the Conservative lawmaker who oversees the party's leadership elections, told his colleagues, who banged on tables and cheered at the announcement.
Sunak, who at 42 is set to be the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years, will now be invited to form a government by King Charles III, a ceremonial duty the country’s new monarch will carry out for the first time.
A multimillionaire former banker, Sunak was not elected by the United Kingdom’s 67 million people but rather appointed by lawmakers from the Conservative Party, which is recording historic polling lows after a decade of austerity and 18 months of controversy and division.
This is the party's second leadership contest in two months. In the first, Sunak was the clear favorite until Truss’ late surge saw her elected by the party’s nearly 200,000 paying members, who are mostly white, wealthy and male, and tend to lean to the right of the British political center.
This time, those members didn’t have a say because Sunak was the only candidate to get the requisite support of 100 lawmakers to reach a potential runoff.
Johnson claimed he could have reached this threshold, and he may well have won a wider vote among the membership. But doing so would have strained a bitterly divided party to the breaking point, so unpopular is Johnson in Parliament. Sunak's other challenger, Mordaunt, announced minutes before the 9 a.m. ET deadline that she, too, had failed to gather enough support. "Rishi has my full support," she said in a statement.
The son of African-born Hindus of Indian descent, Sunak will be the country's second ethnic minority leader, after Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the 1800s, who was of Jewish descent but a practicing Christian. Sunak won the leadership contest on Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.
Born in the southern port city of Southampton, Sunak became the member of Parliament for Richmond in the northern region of Yorkshire in 2015. His rapid rise through the ranks saw him build his own personal brand with a slick social media operation and popular measures to alleviate economic pressure during the pandemic.
"The United Kingdom is a great country but we face a profound economic crisis," Sunak said on Twitter Sunday, his only public comments during the latest leadership contest. "I want to fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country."
It will be a herculean effort, as he takes the helm during a domestic economic crisis and while Britain is anxiously trying to find its place in the world after its departure from the European Union.
He will hope that Monday's coronation will help to unite his fractured party, whose wings span culture-warrior free-marketeers to liberal centrists who would not look out of place in the American Democratic party.
Even tougher will be bringing economic calm and stability, as Britain faces a cost-of-living crisis already forcing some people to go hungry, and a painful recession that has no obvious solution.
Truss' short tenure fueled a crisis that sent interest rates spiraling and the pound plunging, with markets now expecting that the government will cut spending and increase taxes as a result. Sunak has not said what his policies will be, but has been a longtime advocate of budgetary restraint.
A teetotaler and whip-smart, Sunak is seen by many within the party as a technocratic, stabilizing influence following the mayhem of the Johnson-Truss era. During his leadership election with Truss last month, he warned that many of her tax-cutting policies would bring economic disaster — and he was right.
Though Johnson ultimately chose not to fight this contest, it is the latest flashpoint between two men who have become fierce rivals after having served at the top of government together just a few months ago.
Sunak was Johnson's finance minister, the second most powerful position in government. But after yet another scandal emerged raising questions of Johnson's relationship to the truth, Sunak resigned and ultimately helped bring down his then-boss.
And while Sunak is not as synonymous with the revelations about boozy lockdown-busting parties as Johnson, police found that he, too, had broken the law over the "partygate" affair and issued him with a fine.
Earlier this year, he and his wife, Akshata Murthy, 42, came under intense criticism after it emerged she had paid million less in taxes because she legally claimed “nondomicile” status in the U.K., meaning she was treated as foreign-based for tax reasons.
Though Sunak is a former banker, it’s through his wife’s father, the Indian software tycoon NR Narayana Murthy, that the couple sits on an estimated 730 million-pound fortune ($825 million) — making the couple richer than the king and Camila, the queen consort.
As well as their new residence in Downing Street, they have four homes, including a penthouse apartment in Santa Monica, California, overlooking the beach where “Baywatch” was filmed.