LONDON — Rishi Sunak took office as British prime minister Tuesday, acknowledging the mistakes of his Conservative Party predecessors and warning of difficult decisions ahead for a country mired in political and economic trouble.
Sunak, the first British Asian to assume the role and a multimillionaire former banker, paid passing tribute to those predecessors in his first speech as leader Tuesday. But he also acknowledged “mistakes were made” under Truss, and promised to lead with “integrity, professionalism and accountability” — three qualities Johnson is widely perceived as lacking.
“Our country is facing a profound economic crisis,” Sunak said in his first speech as prime minister outside No. 10 Downing St. “I will unite our country not with words but with action.”
Sunak’s leadership was confirmed when he met King Charles III at Buckingham Palace and was invited to form a government by the new monarch, a ceremonial rubber-stamping act known as “kissing hands.”
Truss became the 15th prime minister of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign just 49 days ago — the shortest term in British political history. Now each of their successors stands in their place, a mark of the tumult that has beset the world’s sixth-largest economy.
At 42, Sunak will be the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years. The son of African-born Hindus of Indian descent, he is also the country’s first ethnic minority leader in 140 years, after Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the 1800s, who was of Jewish descent but a practicing Christian.
Though Sunak is a former banker, it’s through his wife’s father, an Indian software tycoon, that the couple sits on an estimated 730 million pound fortune ($825 million) — making them richer than the king and Camilla, the queen consort.
Just like Truss, Sunak was not elected by the U.K.’s 67 million people but rather appointed by a few hundred Conservative lawmakers.
In the U.K., the party with the most lawmakers in the House of Commons can appoint a new leader without holding a nationwide election. The opposition Labour Party and many others are demanding a public vote after the months of scandal and upheaval.
Sunak, who served as finance minister under Johnson, won the ruling Conservatives' leadership contest Monday after an aborted comeback bid by his former boss.
Now, Sunak will appoint his Cabinet, personnel who will give a sense of how he hopes to tackle the plummeting fortunes of the country’s economy and his own political party.
He inherits nothing short of an economic emergency, one that critics say his Conservative Party helped create through a decade of austerity and then Brexit. The U.K. is now mired in a daunting cost-of-living crisis that means millions of people are already struggling to eat and heat their homes — and it is likely to get worse this winter.
His bitterly divided party is also deeply unpopular, meaning Sunak will be tasked with stabilizing its fortunes, as well as markets spooked by Truss' now-reversed plans for unfunded tax cuts.
“Rishi Sunak really is facing an absolutely gargantuan challenge,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told NBC News. “He does face really, really big problems that are not just economic, but also, of course, electoral.”
Truss’ disastrous tenure has helped Sunak take power not long after he lost a previous leadership contest to her. But even in a few short weeks, Truss has made her successor’s job undoubtedly more difficult.
She attempted to implement a suite of free-market capitalist policies, including tax cuts for high earners, which sent the markets into a panic, and ultimately spelled her demise.
Despite leaving office with an approval rating of just 6%, according to one poll, her farewell speech was defian, rather than apologetic. Her short time as prime minister had, she said, left her “more convinced than ever that we need to be bold and confront the challenges that we face.”
For Sunak, those challenges are not just the daunting domestic crises, but also issues including Russia's war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has relied on British military support, was among the first world leaders to congratulate him Tuesday.
President Joe Biden described Sunak's leadership as a “groundbreaking milestone," while leaders from India and elsewhere also welcomed the news.
CORRECTION (Oct. 25, 2022, 8:38 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the queen consort. She is Camilla, not Camila.