When Rishi Sunak lost Liz Truss in the first Conservative Party leadership race of 2022, few were surprised. Many of the people who were given the choice between the two candidates blamed Sunak for Boris Johnson’s downfall. They also preferred Truss’ “optimistic” economic policy to Sunak’s gloomy assessment of fiscal prospects. Where she promised generous tax arrangements, he argued that economic circumstances would be difficult and taxes could not be cut in the short term. Indeed, he warned, they would even have to rise.

A few short weeks later and Sunak now finds himself in office from the Trustees, vindicated for his criticism of her tax plans. In the end, he was the only candidate to secure enough nominations to become leader of his party and thus prime minister – a situation partly driven by the need to avoid another divisive leadership contest. The Conservatives could not afford to continue to project an image of disunity and chaos.

Johnson briefly ran for the position before announcing that he didn’t believe a return now would be the right thing to do. We may never know if he actually had enough nominations to run argued.

Penny Mordaunt was a more reliable candidate but an unlikely winner due to her lack of experience. Her failure to gather enough nominations to contest the leadership election left the way for Sunak.

Who is Rishi Sunak?

Sunak is in many ways a very traditional conservative. He was born in Southampton and attended Winchester School – a very expensive and respected private school. He studied at Oxford and Stanford and worked in the financial sector at Goldman Sachs. After graduation, he lived and worked in Silicon Valley for several years, where he met his wife, Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy.

Sunak only entered parliament in 2015, taking the safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire – a deeply conservative country – succeeding former party leader William Hague. He was almost unknown outside the party until 2020 – the new MP made his way into parliament, impressing people but not holding high office.

However, things change quickly in politics and Sajid Javid’s resignation in February 2020 left a vacuum in the government. Johnson handed Sunak the chancellorship – one of Britain’s greatest government roles. His honeymoon in the role was cut short by the arrival of COVID. Not only did Sunak have to deal with the financial fallout of the pandemic, but he was also tasked with appearing on television almost daily to update the country on his decisions.

Despite the pressure, Sunak turned the situation into a personal success. He was widely credited and praised for the furlough scheme, which saw the government pay salaries to people unable to work due to the lockdown. Forgotten are the many days during which Sunak was accused of wavering over whether to introduce such a scheme at all.

Sunak’s popularity soared as people believed his actions had spared them the worst financial impact of the pandemic, but as vaccines rolled out and life returned to normal, questions began to be asked about how Britain would recover economically.

This coincided with huge challenges for the government. Johnson was caught breaking the lockdown rules and fined by the police. Sunak was also fined, but avoided criticism of Johnson on the grounds that people appeared to genuinely believe he had inadvertently ended up at an illegal office meeting on his way to a meeting. That was the story Johnson was spreading at the time, but somehow it was more believable when it came from Sunak, a man who seemed genuinely interested in helping people, rather than someone who seemed to have no respect for rules in general.

In a telling reference to that time, Sunak wrote in his first statement after winning the leadership contest that his administration would be characterized by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels.”

More damaging were the revelations that she was Sunak’s wife who claim non-domiciled tax status. Before the scandal, Sunak was considered the most obvious successor to Johnson, but the chancellor’s view of allowing his own family to circumvent tax rules stopped him in his tracks.

The fall of Johnson, the rise of Truss

In July 2022, Javid (who returned as health minister) and Sunak resigned almost at the same time that caused a flood of new resignations of their colleagues.

The decision eventually forced Johnson to resign, and Tory members have yet to forgive and forget, electing Truss when they voted in the summer. Meanwhile, the parliamentary party had always favored Sunak, so when Truss’s brief tenure came to an abrupt end, they avoided the members’ question by rallying around their preferred candidate.

A short acceptance speech by Sunak.

Now in office, Sunak has a great work. The financial situation in Great Britain was already bad when he resigned as chancellor. Then followed two months of inactivity while the Conservatives settled on a new leader. Then the Truss mini-budget blew up the economy. Coupled with the global impact of the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis, rising interest rates and concerns about Britain’s financial stability, Sunak faces a difficult time in office.

Sunak must rally his party, knowing that even though he was the first choice of many, some preferred other candidates — including Johnson. Meanwhile, Labor is riding high in the polls, and potential solutions to the economic crisis will be painful and slow.

How will Sunak lead the Conservatives to victory in the next general election, which is due in late 2024 (or early 2025 at the latest) when the electorate is feeling the effects of higher taxes, higher electricity bills and stagnant wages? His only hope is to distance himself from the more damaging parts of the Conservative legacy – such as the current state of the NHS, industrial strikes and the chronic underfunding of public services – and associate himself with more positive elements such as high levels of youth employment.

Given recent events, his victory after the death of Truss is not a surprise. Perhaps the surprise is that at the moment anyone would want to be prime minister at all.