Rishi Sunak is currently the favorite in the battle to succeed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but opinions about him are divided.
To some, he is a child of immigrants who have reached the top of British society and politics under unfavorable circumstances.
For others, he is simply the embodiment of Westminster, with friends who are “aristocrats” and from the “upper class”, but not from the “working class”.
Also, according to a recent YouGov study, 40 percent consider him incompetent. Nevertheless, he is among the last three participants and Johnson’s most likely successor.
Before entering politics, Sunak studied at Oxford and Stanford before working as an analyst at Goldman Sachs Investment Bank and then as a hedge fund manager. He became known to the public when Johnson made him finance minister in 2020.
Barely in the office did Sunak face the coronavirus pandemic as the first significant endurance test, but it also allowed him to establish a profile.
He became popular with the public with his decisions to continue salary payments, leave, loans to ailing companies and coupons for restaurant visits – mainly via carte blanche from Johnson.
“Sunak operated under a prime minister who was concerned with spending money, especially on infrastructure projects designed to deliver the equalization agenda and more generally because Johnson made spending promises without always considering how to pay for them,” said Neil Carter, a professor of politics at the University of York, Al Jazeera said.
“But certain actions backfired – the initiative to eat to help may have saved the restaurant sector, but almost certainly contributed to the devastating second COVID wave in the fall of 2020,” he said.
Nevertheless, in parallel with the growing new debt in the UK in 2020, Sunak’s popularity also grew.
Johnson was apparently inclined to let Sunak do the job – no doubt a mistake, British political reader Stephen Elstub told Al Jazeera.
“During the pandemic, when the government held regular TV briefings, the chancellor had to announce the government handouts while the prime minister told us how many people had died and that we all needed to stay home,” he said.
With the end of all closure restrictions earlier this year, however, Sunak changed his approach to quickly reduce government debt – via higher taxes, which cost him sympathy while people are struggling with a record increase in the cost of living.
“His significant increases in corporation tax and social security were attacked from across the political spectrum to harm business, and because social security is a tax on workers, it falls disproportionately on younger people,” Carter said.
However, tightening government spending is in line with Sunak’s political views.
“We know for sure that he is pro-Brexit and anti-immigration. He describes himself as a “financial conservative” who advocates a small state and low taxes. All this would put him to the right of the party. But it is clear that he is also a pragmatist, said Elstub.
However, Carter said the Conservative Party is a “strange beast these days”, with the right wing not so fond of him.
“He’s the center – left candidate of the Tories,” he said.
On top of the political challenges, local media this year revealed dubious tax evasion strategies from his wife, while Sunak was accused of keeping the possibilities open for emigration to the United States through a green card.
“The leak – presumably by the Prime Minister’s team – of the stories that he had an American green card until quite recently and his wife’s tax status without residence [due to her being an Indian citizen and her dividend payments coming from abroad] – and more generally her wealth – seemed to have paid off for his PM ambitions and carefully groomed public image, “said Carter.
In addition, many tories see Sunak as a traitor, whom he only threw out by withdrawing from Johnson. A document even circulated in Tory WhatsApp groups, “Dirty Dossier”, which portrays Sunak as reserved and deceived.
Nevertheless, among the three candidates left in the prime ministerial race – junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt, foreign minister Liz Truss and Sunak – the latter is still the favorite.
“He seems more popular than the other challengers and is perceived as the most consistent practitioner in their two TV debates among Conservatives and Labor voters. Despite this, opinion polls suggest that most people believe Sunak would be a bad prime minister. At the moment Sunak is less popular than [Labour leader Keir] Starmer too, said Elstub.