Rishi Sunak officially became Britain’s third prime minister in seven weeks on Tuesday, saying “mistakes have been made” by his predecessor as he sought to bring stability to the UK after months of political and economic turmoil.
He was appointed by King Charles III to Buckingham Palace in London shortly after Liz Truss tendered her resignation to the monarch after a chaotic 50-day term in office that rocked Britain’s economy.
Sunak becomes the first person of color and the first Hindu to lead Britain after winning a fast-track Conservative Party leadership race on Monday. At 42, he is also the youngest to hold this position in over 200 years.
After being asked to form a government by the king, Sunak returned to Downing Street where he delivered a speech aimed at allaying some of the public’s concerns and setting out some of the vision for his premiership.
In his first speech as Britain’s new prime minister, Sunak said the country was going through a “deep economic crisis”, before paying tribute to Truss.
“I admired his restlessness to create change. But some mistakes were made. Not born out of bad will or bad intentions. Quite the opposite in fact, but mistakes nonetheless,” he said. “And I was elected leader of my party, and your prime minister in part, to fix them, and that work begins immediately.
Sunak highlighted his experience as finance minister during the pandemic to illustrate how he intends to meet the challenges ahead.
“You saw me during Covid doing everything I could to protect people and businesses, with programs like furlough. There are always limits, more than ever. But I promise you this: I will bring the same compassion to the challenges we face today,” he said.
“The government I lead will not leave the next generation – your children and grandchildren – with a debt to settle that we were too weak to pay ourselves. I will unite our country, not by words but by deeds.
Sunak added, “I will work day in and day out to deliver to you. This government will demonstrate integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels.
Earlier on Tuesday, Truss delivered his outgoing speech from the Downing Street podium before making the short drive to Buckingham Palace.
Despite a disastrous tenure that saw her become Britain’s shortest prime minister in history, Truss appeared confident and smiling, as she called her tenure a “great honour”, adding later that “days better awaited us”.
“We simply cannot afford to be a low-growth country where the government takes an increasing share of our national wealth and where there are huge gaps between different parts of our country,” Truss said on the ‘economy. “We need to take advantage of our Brexit freedoms to do things differently. It means giving more freedom to our own citizens and empowering democratic institutions.
Truss concluded by wishing Sunak “every success for the sake of our country.”
Tuesday’s developments are a stunning turnaround for the man whose resignation as finance minister helped bring down Boris Johnson’s government earlier this year but then lost the summer leadership race. By then, it appeared that Sunak’s ambitions for the country’s highest political role were over.
And yet, when Truss’ premiership imploded last week, Sunak quickly became a favorite to take over the party once again. Now in the highest position, he faces a multitude of challenges to get the country out of the crisis.
His own party is split and has lost ground to opposition Labor in opinion polls after four months of political and financial market chaos. At the same time, Britain is facing a major economic crisis, with many economists believing it is already in recession.
It is also already under intense fire from opposition politicians, who are calling for a general election. Sunak, like Truss, did not have to win a general election to become prime minister because the Conservatives are still the largest party in the House of Commons, so their leader automatically becomes prime minister.
It is not uncommon for a prime minister to take office without an election – four of Britain’s last five prime ministers have taken office for the first time without a general election. But the fact that Sunak is the UK’s third prime minister since the last poll in 2019 and the second to come to power without a public vote adds to the pressure.
Sunak has no obligation to call a vote. By law, the next general election must be held no later than January 2025. With Labor leading in the opinion polls, he is highly unlikely to make it through.