Rishi Sunak’s campaign in the UK election showed his lack of political touch

LONDON — Rishi Sunak’s campaign to remain Britain’s prime minister showed a lack of political touch.

The Conservative Party’s problems were grave before Friday’s resounding election defeat but missteps by Britain’s richest prime minister contributed to its defeat.

Predecessors such as Tony Blair and Boris Johnson were more politically astute and able to connect with voters. As for Sunak, he didn’t have to call the election until January 2025. He defied political advice by doing so in May — with Conservative support dwindling steadily amid an economic slump, ethics scandals and a revolving door of leaders over the last two years — and announced the July 4 date in the pouring rain.

What’s more, the Conservative Party didn’t appear ready for the campaign compared with Labour, and voters haven’t really felt the improvement in Britain’s economy yet.

“I have heard your anger, your disappointment, and I take responsibility for this loss,” Sunak said in his final speech as prime minister outside the residence at 10 Downing St.

Arguably, Sunak’s biggest blunder — one that prompted him to apologize and which many analysts think was the final death knell of the Conservative Party’s campaign — was his decision to leave early from the 80-year D-day commemorations in northern France on June 6.

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 U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy all were present. As was Keir Starmer, the U.K.’s new prime minister.

Born in 1980 in Southampton on England’s south coast to parents of Indian descent, Sunak became Britain’s first leader of color and the first Hindu to become prime minister. At 42, he was Britain’s youngest leader for more than 200 years.

A former hedge fund manager at Goldman Sachs who married into a billionaire Indian family, Sunak rose rapidly within Conservative ranks. Now 44, he become Treasury chief on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic. Within weeks, he had to unveil the biggest economic support package of any Chancellor of the Exchequer outside wartime, a package that many saw as saving millions of jobs.

Long a low-tax, small-state politician despite the high-spending nature of that package, Sunak had a record of idolizing former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Smooth, confident and at ease with the march of modern technology, Sunak 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.

Johnson was forced to quit in the summer of 2022 after being adjudged to have lied to Parliament over breaches of coronavirus lockdowns at his offices in Downing Street. As if that wasn’t bad enough, trust in the Conservatives tanked further when his successor Liz Truss backed a package of unfunded tax cuts that roiled financial markets and sent borrowing costs surging, particularly for homeowners already struggling with the most acute of cost of living crisis in decades. Her premiership was the shortest in the history of the U.K.

When Sunak replaced Truss, he pitched himself as a stable pair of hands. He constantly reminded voters that he had warned Conservative Party members about the recklessness of Truss’s economic plan when he challenged her to succeed Johnson. The day he replaced Truss after her traumatic 49-day premiership in Oct. 2022, the Conservatives were trailing Labour by around 30 percentage points.

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

In his 21 months as prime minister, Sunak struggled to keep a lid on bitter divisions within his Conservative Party. One side wanted him to be much tougher on immigration and bolder in cutting taxes, while another urged him to move more to the center of politics, the space where, historically, British elections are won.

In his concession speech, Sunak said he would serve a full term in parliament until 2029, and that he would stay on as leader until the Conservative Party has elected a successor.

“It is important that, after 14 years in government, the Conservative Party rebuilds, but also that it takes up its crucial role in opposition professionally and effectively,” he said,

Many think he may be tempted to return to the U.S. in the years to come, perhaps to pursue his interest in artificial technology.

After his school years at Winchester College, one of Britain’s most expensive boarding schools, Sunak 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 many said left him out of touch with the daily problems of most 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, a “leave” that came unexpectedly and that many Britons today regret.

First appeared on abcnews.go.com

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