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Churchill’s Nightmare: Is Britain Ready for a Prime Minister of South Asian Origin?

Churchill’s Nightmare: Is Britain Ready for a Prime Minister of South Asian Origin?

  • Two Tory leaders of Indian origin — Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel — and one of Pakistani origin — Sajid Javid — are in the race to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been facing opposition from within his Conservative Party for a while, peaking with the no-confidence vote in June when 148 of 358 Conservative MPs voted against him. His unpopularity seemed to hit the ceiling when Johnson was booed by the public during the Queen’s jubilee celebrations. But the Prime Minister dug his heels in.

It took the resignation of two most senior British Asian ministers in his cabinet — Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak — to trigger a spate of resignations on July 5 that led to the fall of Britain’s charismatic but delusional Prime Minister. Finally, his Trumpian obstinacy and bravado crashed on the sidewalk of 10 Downing Street.

The first letter of resignation came from Health Secretary Javid. Born in Rochdale, Javid, the son of a Pakistani-origin bus driver, faced discrimination in his early years but went on to be a successful banker and a minister in Conservative governments under David Cameron and Johnson. He also entered the race for Conservative Party leadership but was unsuccessful.

Within 10 minutes of Javid’s resignation came another from Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Sunak had a more privileged life. Born in Southampton to doctor and pharmacy-owner parents from East Africa, he went to Stanford University as a Fulbright scholar. The investment banker later married Akshata Murty, the daughter of N. R. Narayana Murthy, the Indian billionaire businessman who founded Infosys.

Their resignations led to a flurry of resignations from other ministers, including the junior ones. Even as Johnson’s house of cards was crumbling, the obstinate and by now delusional Johnson, plodded along, defiantly filling up the ministerial vacancies, including appointing Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi as Chancellor of Exchequer. Zahawi came to the UK when his Kurdish parents fled from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in the 1970s.

But immediately after the reshuffle, a delegation of ministers including some of those newly appointed met the Prime Minister to advise him to resign. The next morning, when 59 resignations had reached Downing Street, Zahawi, fell in stride and wrote an open letter to the PM telling him to go.

At last, when Johnson realized he would find it difficult to find enough ministers in his cabinet, he made his resignation speech. But he clearly is in no mood to leave Downing Street, hanging in there as caretaker PM till the new leader is elected. The election process is long and complicated, and it is believed Johnson could be in the post till after the party conference in September.

In the meantime, all and sundry Tory MPs are throwing their hats into the leadership race. I am sure every Indian out there would want to know if there will be the first-ever Indian-origin or British Asian Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. There is no easy answer.

In January, Sunak, following his post-Covid financial assistance package, was way ahead of all other contenders as the obvious successor to Johnson. But his chances crashed soon after his wife’s tax irregularities and his U.S. green card status controversy came to light. It was made worse after he received a fixed-penalty notice in the now infamous Partygate scandal. He is, however, still well placed, running neck to neck with Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, to assume the party leadership and prime ministership. The leader in the polls currently is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary. While Javid and Zahawi are still in the top seven contenders, the game from here on will change.

Conservative members are now keen not to have anyone who carries forward the Johnson legacy. Sunak is second in the current ratings followed closely by Penny Mordent, Minister of State for Trade. Though the former chancellor’s leadership hopes were badly dented earlier this year they seem to have re-energized by his bold move on Tuesday to quit the cabinet.

In recent years there has been a notable shift of Indian diaspora voters from Labour to Conservatives. While the older generation of less qualified, less affluent Indian migrants was drawn to Labour for its pro-poor policies, the younger generation is relatively fast-growing, highly educated with high net worth.

Sunak is believed to have already set up a temporary campaign office in a Westminster hotel, where surely the phones must be ringing endlessly. He has an uphill climb, after being criticized recently for slowness to help people in the cost-of-living crisis and some gaffes that suggest he is out of touch. While some backbenchers see him as calm and unflappable, others have told me he is seen as too close to Johnson and was an enabler who remained silent throughout the months of scandals, lies and sleaze of the Johnson government. They feel his resignation came too late when he realized his own seat was in danger.

As for Javid, he is popular amongst voters but not so among the party ranks. Zahawi, who was also popular is now seen as an opportunist after he agreed to step into Sunak’s shoes and then within 24 hours wrote an open letter to the PM. Too much politics that!

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, does not stand a chance. She is seen as too close to Johnson and was part of his inner team that orchestrated the fall of former Prime Minister Theresa May. The bullying case against her in the Home Office and her policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, definitely go against her.

If you wonder why I am discussing South Asian-origin MPs having a fair chance at the leadership battle, it is because this is the first time that someone like Sunak is so close to that goal. Labour Party has never had such senior ministers of Indian origin, although until recently Indians mostly voted for Labour. Undoubtedly, the Johnson cabinet was truly diverse with British Asians, particularly British Indians getting two of the most senior posts. British Indians make up a critical stakeholder in the fortunes of any party at the polls.

In recent years there has been a notable shift of Indian diaspora voters from Labour to Conservatives. While the older generation of less qualified, less affluent Indian migrants was drawn to Labour for its pro-poor policies, the younger generation is relatively fast-growing, highly educated with high net worth. It tends to lean right.

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I remember having this discussion with Michael Howard several years ago when he was the Conservative Party leader, wherein I suggested that the Tories need to tap into the Indian vote bank, which could prove crucial for winning elections. True enough, the historical advantage of Labour has eroded. Now just four in 10 British Indians identify with the Labour party, while three in 10 support the Conservatives, and around one in 10 identify with other parties making them critical swing voters. While it has been advantage Tories lately, studies show the Indian support for Conservatives is plateauing.

The British Indian community is based on two demographic factors – age and religion. Younger British Indians (between the ages of 18 and 29) are the strongest supporters of Labour by 54% to 15% over Conservatives. Among those aged 50 and above, however, Labour’s advantage is a mere two points (37% v 35%).

South Asian Britons are highly polarized along religious lines. According to polling, most Muslim and Sikh respondents would vote Labour in a snap election, but among Christians and Hindus, the Tories are the most favored. Given the relative demographic weight of the Hindus, Labour’s problem with British Indians is largely driven by the flight of Hindu voters from its ranks.

British Indians, much like the rest of the country, are preoccupied with the economy and healthcare. Though a large chunk of Indian voters is indeed disappointed with Johnson’s government, many are also critical of Labour policies. Indeed, the most common reason that British Indians do not identify with the Labour party is the perception that it is too influenced by socialism.

Against this backdrop, this is a very good chance for a person of Indian origin to lead the conservatives. But politics is ruthless and often ironic. And it is a known fact that favorites never win a Conservative election be it John Major, David Cameron, or Boris Johnson, all of whom came from behind to win the leadership of the party.

The next few weeks will be critical and at times nail-biting as the competition intensifies. But one cannot overlook the fact that after the disastrous Johnson tenure, Labour is slowly and steadily closing the gap. It will be an interesting summer in British politics.

Nabanita Sircar is a London-based corporate public relations professional and journalist.

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