Sunak urges U.K. Tory unity in face of ‘existential threat’

New leader of the Britain’s Conservative Party Rishi Sunak walks outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, in London, Britain October 24, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Rishi Sunak called on his warring Conservative Party to unite as the U.K.’s incoming prime minister bids to fix the crisis facing the economy.

Speaking less than an hour after emerging victorious in the race to succeed Liz Truss as premier, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer said his party faces an “existential threat,” and needs to come together, according to Simon Hoare, a Tory lawmaker present at Sunak’s address to MPs behind closed doors on Monday.

Sunak spoke shortly after his last remaining rival, Penny Mordaunt, pulled out of the race for 10 Downing Street, urging her party to “unite and work together for the good of the nation.” That meant there was no need for a runoff vote among grass roots party members. The handover of power to Sunak from Truss won’t take place on Monday, the prime minister’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters in London. The timing will be worked out later in the day, he said.

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It is a remarkable turnaround in Sunak’s political fortunes, after the former Chancellor of the Exchequer quit Boris Johnson’s government in July and then lost out to Truss in the last Tory leadership contest over the summer. But his repeated warnings that her plans would trigger economic chaos proved correct and put him in pole position when Truss’s premiership imploded.

Britain’s Conservative MP Rishi Sunak walks next to his campaign headquarters in London, Britain, October 24, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Even so, Sunak was no shoo-in given the bitterness and division in the Conservative Party. He’s still tarnished in the eyes of many Tory MPs for his role in Johnson’s downfall, and the former prime minister’s flirtation over the weekend with what would have been an outrageous comeback just months after being ousted briefly threatened to derail Sunak’s hopes.

In the end, Johnson withdrew without ever showing he had the support of 100 Tory MPs needed to formally contest the leadership. Likewise, Mordaunt pulled out shortly before influential Tory MP Graham Brady was due to announce which candidates had surpassed that threshold.

It effectively meant a coronation for Sunak, 42, who becomes the UK’s first Hindu prime minister and the country’s youngest in more than 200 years. Grass roots Tory members, who had the final say when Truss beat out Sunak last time, will have no input this time around.

But Sunak now faces a daunting task to try to bring that unity to a party that has been through months of upheaval and is still tearing itself apart over fundamental issues including Brexit and the economy. The party is trailing badly in opinion polls and must call an election by January 2025 at the latest.

But some Tory MPs have said the party no longer has a mandate to govern, after a second change of leader since Johnson won the general election in 2019. “It will now be impossible to avoid a GE,” former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said earlier on Twitter. But Sunak told his MPs there will be no snap election, according to Hoare.

On Monday, there were signs that Tory MPs are prepared to rally behind their new leader. After Sunak’s address, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith — a Brexiteer on the ideological right of the party — told reporters: “It’s time to end this psychodrama.” And Alex Chalk, a Remainer from the party’s moderate One Nation faction hailed Sunak’s “incredible speech.”

“We’ve got to move forward,” Chalk said. “He said it with an articulacy and a power that brought the room to life.”

Truss’s decision to step down followed weeks of turmoil as investors jettisoned UK assets. Her economic plan, including borrowing to pay for massive tax cuts, rattled markets and turned voters further against the Tories in record numbers.

After firing her first finance minister and longtime political ally, Kwasi Kwarteng, Truss brought in Jeremy Hunt — who backed Sunak on Sunday — to try to restore calm.

Hunt managed that to a degree, but also put the government on course to impose another punishing round of austerity at a politically sensitive time as Britons struggle with soaring living costs.

In a column for the Telegraph newspaper late Sunday, Hunt indicated that he and Sunak are aligned on how to tackle the economy. Sunak will “turn the page on what went wrong, take decisions in the national interest and rebuild the extraordinary potential of our economy,” Hunt said.

Hunt is due to deliver a major statement on the Treasury’s tax-and-spending plans on Oct. 31, a date picked to better inform the Bank of England on how quickly it should raise interest rates. UK bonds surged at Monday’s open on expectations of a Sunak premiership.

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