Rishi Sunak will on Wednesday face off against opposition lawmakers for the first time as British prime minister
London (AFP) - Rishi Sunak will on Wednesday face off against opposition lawmakers for the first time as British prime minister, in a likely raucous parliamentary session following weeks of political turmoil.
His parliamentary debut as prime minister comes a day after he took power as the first UK leader of colour, vowing to repair the damage wrought by outgoing leader Liz Truss through her disastrous budget, which sparked economic carnage.
Sunak faces a daunting array of problems from the war in Ukraine to a cost-of-living crisis at home and expected budget cuts.
Asked about possible cuts to foreign aid Wednesday, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the government faced some difficult decisions.
He said Covid had been unprecedented and then “straight off the back of Covid, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin invaded Ukraine which then amplified the global challenges” the pandemic had created.
“We have got to be realistic because there are a whole bunch of realities domestically that we have got to address,” he told BBC radio.
Sunak on Tuesday also pledged to unite his fractured Conservatives and an increasingly unimpressed country, and began his tenure by re-appointing a host of ministers from his predecessor’s top team.
The right-leaning Times daily welcomed a “generally broad and capable set of cabinet appointments” although the left-wing Guardian expressed scepticism that he would be able to unite the party.
“Sooner or later, he will face the parliamentary disunity that his election sought to banish,” it said in an editorial.
Sunak, finance minister under ex-premier Boris Johnson, retained Jeremy Hunt as chancellor of the exchequer, bidding to keep markets onside after he stabilised the situation with his initial appointment nearly two weeks ago.
He also kept Truss’s foreign, defence, trade and culture ministers, among others, as well as controversially bringing back recently fired Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
The line-up “reflects a unified party and a cabinet with significant experience, ensuring that at this uncertain time there is continuity at the heart of government”, a Downing Street source said.
Britain's re-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt
The continuity cabinet could hold an inaugural meeting Wednesday before Sunak heads to the House of Commons for his first weekly “Prime Minister’s Questions”, when he will battle Labour leader Keir Starmer and other opposition lawmakers.
They will undoubtedly seek to capitalise on weeks of chaos at the top of government, and reiterate demands for a general election following the selection – by Conservative MPs – of their third leader in two months.
“The Tories have crashed the economy, with low wages, high prices and a cost-of-living crisis,” Starmer said Tuesday, in a taste of the attack lines to come.
“The public needs a fresh start and a say on Britain’s future.”
- ‘Difficult decisions’ -
Liz Truss left office as the UK's shortest-serving premier in history
Truss left office as the UK’s shortest-serving premier in history, replaced by its youngest since 1812 and first Hindu leader.
Sunak, 42, triumphed in a 96-hour Tory leadership contest after rival contender Penny Mordaunt failed to secure enough nominations from Tory lawmakers and Johnson dramatically aborted an audacious comeback bid.
Truss and Johnson offered their support – though Johnson, who privately blamed his ex-minister for toppling him in July, is thought to be fuming and still harbouring hopes of an eventual Downing Street return.
In his first call with a foreign leader, Sunak told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Britain would continue its “steadfast support” following Russia’s invasion.
He also spoke to US President Joe Biden, who had earlier hailed the appointment of the first British-Indian prime minister as “groundbreaking”.
Sunak is unlikely to enjoy much, if any, of a political honeymoon
European leaders offered their own congratulations, while Irish premier Micheal Martin reminded Sunak of their “shared responsibility” to safeguard peace in Northern Ireland following tensions under Johnson and Truss.
Sunak is unlikely to enjoy much, if any, of a political honeymoon due to the proliferation of issues waiting in his in tray.
Markets – and opposition parties – are eagerly awaiting an October 31 Halloween fiscal statement from Hunt, which is likely to contain curbs on public spending to meet tens of billions of pounds in budget shortfalls.
Labour and others are expected to keep demanding a snap election – not due until January 2025 at the latest.