the rapid rise and stunning fall of Rishi Sunak

Few British politicians have risen as high as fast as Rishi Sunak. But it is the speed and severity of his fall for which he is now more likely to be remembered.

Having gone from junior minister to prime minister in barely three years, Sunak has left his Conservative party with its worst-ever result. His Icarus-like arc makes him Britain’s third shortest-serving prime minister since the second world war, after Anthony Eden and Liz Truss, in office for just 20 months.

Few observers deny that Sunak received a dismal inheritance when he took over in October 2022. The Conservatives were more than 20 points behind in the polls, following the scandals of Boris Johnson’s tenure and the economic shock of Liz Truss’s.

Rishi Sunak arriving at Number 10 in October 2022 after becoming prime minister
Rishi Sunak arriving at Number 10 in October 2022 after becoming prime minister © Simon Walker/No10 Downing Street

But Sunak’s approach to the premiership baffled many, who expected him to play the statesman and to build on his strengths as a details person. They also expected he would learn the lessons of his original failed leadership campaign in 2022, when his highly personalised slogan, “Ready for Rishi”, fell flat.

“The strategy should have been I’m going to spend 18 months or so just being the prime minister. Instead they turned him into a candidate,” said Chris Wilkins, a former senior aide to Theresa May. “He’s not a good candidate. But he could have been a good prime minister.”

Short-trousered in public and short-tempered in private, Sunak quickly looked unprepared for his rapid promotion. “Ineffectual is the first word that springs to mind,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Just because you inherit a poisoned chalice doesn’t mean you have to drink it.”

Sunak failed to distance himself from his unpopular predecessors. Having promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”, he reappointed Gavin Williamson and Suella Braverman to the cabinet after they had been forced to resign. He approved resignation honours lists for Truss and Johnson, even though the latter would soon be censured by the House of Commons for lying over lockdown parties.

Rishi Sunak in his constituency in Richmond Yorkshire
Rishi Sunak in his constituency in Richmond, North Yorkshire © Rishi Sunak/Facebook

The first prime minister with an MBA, Sunak sought economic stability. In 2023, he set out five priorities including halving inflation. He agreed new trade rules with the EU, lessening tensions that had arisen since Brexit, which he supported. His Thatcherite instincts jarred with the public memory of his time as chancellor during the Covid-19 pandemic, when he was the source of handouts. He went on to cut national insurance, the tax that as chancellor he had put up.

Broadly, Sunak did not live up to his billing as a technocrat. “His entire question on a policy issue is: how many votes will this get me?” said one veteran Conservative, who saw Sunak at work. “He’s not good enough to be a technocrat.”

Sunak pledged to reduce NHS waiting lists, but did not resolve the junior doctors’ strike that worsened them. He focused heavily on immigration, an approach that seemed to boost his populist rivals, not disarm them. He criticised Britain’s approach to net zero, and sought to make hay from issues relating to transgender people.

By the end, he had lost supporters on the left of the party, committed to environmental action, and the right, who wanted a harder line on immigration. Tellingly, his closest diplomatic relationship was with Italy’s hard-right leader Giorgia Meloni.

Sunak, who spent two years as chancellor but never ran another department, stood accused of over-centralising power. Much ire focused on his young advisers, led by chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith to whom Sunak gave a peerage just before polls closed on Thursday.

One member of his cabinet said that Sunak had “done a reasonable job”, but added: “His single biggest failure is that he surrounded himself with low-quality people. There was very tight control with no judgment. It put grit into the machine.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (front) and former prime ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson during the Remembrance Sunday service
Rishi Sunak with former prime ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson during a Remembrance Sunday service © Jonathan Brady/PA
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, with whom he enjoyed a strong diplomatic relationship © Christopher Furlong/AP

Sunak’s allies said he built an ideologically diverse team, but was hamstrung by the lack of a strong mandate. “The most difficult thing for him was that he hadn’t won an election,” said one adviser in Downing Street.

The party conference in Manchester in October 2023 was intended to provide a reset, but the big announcement — the cancellation of the HS2 rail link to Manchester — exposed further Tory divisions. The central message was also muddled: Sunak criticised “the 30-year political status quo” then, a month later, brought back former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary.

As an orator, Sunak seemed unable to hold the public imagination. He was less able to explain his personal privilege than his predecessors Johnson and Cameron had. He became frustrated: having excelled at everything all his life, why did the public not appreciate that he was excelling at being prime minister? “I don’t think he’s enjoyed the job. He feels worn down. I’ve seen him get very snippy,” said the former cabinet minister.

After more than a decade of Conservative rule, Sunak struggled to find bills that could unite the party. The last King’s Speech, supposed to tee up the election campaign, included a plan to regulate London’s pedicabs. “He’s a fag-end prime minister,” said Meg Russell, director of University College London’s Constitution Unit. “There wasn’t much left to do.”

Rishi Sunak announces the election date in the pouring rain without an umbrella In May
Rishi Sunak announces the election date in the pouring rain without an umbrella In May © Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

At times, policy responded to Sunak’s whims. A chess advocate, he announced plans for 100 chess boards in public spaces (sets not included). A fan of sugary Coke, he opposed measures to improve diets, but, disliking smoking, he did propose a ban on smoking for people born after 2009.

Announcing the July election, Sunak name-checked the smoking ban. But the parliamentary timetable meant it would have to wait for the next government to pass. “He didn’t have adequate understanding of parliament to understand it wasn’t going to magically float through,” said Russell. The timing of the vote also meant Sunak lost a £1,000 bet with the broadcaster Piers Morgan on whether asylum seekers would be sent to Rwanda before the election.

The campaign itself was a dismal end to a disappointing premiership. It began farcically when he announced the date from Downing Street, in the pouring rain without an umbrella.

It got worse when Sunak left D-Day commemorations in France early. This again showed Sunak’s missed statesmanship: it was the “complete opposite” of what his team should have done, said Wilkins. But critics saw the gaffe as no accident. The prime minister had shown little interest in foreign affairs. His advisers may have been responding to his irritation at wasting time: “The tetchiness breeds bad decision-making,” said the veteran Conservative.

Sunak’s other mis-steps included his tone-deaf claim that going without satellite TV in his childhood allowed him to understand the cost of living crisis, and taking nearly two weeks to suspend an aide who placed a bet on the timing of the election. A proposal to bring back national service undercut his seriousness.

Rishi Sunak with the King and Queen at the D-Day commemorations in France
Rishi Sunak with the King and Queen at the D-Day commemorations in France, which he left early © Gareth Fuller/PA

The TV debates were among his better moments. But it was too late. Just 12 per cent of the public approved of his time in office, comfortably the worst of any prime minister going into an election since Ipsos Mori began polling in 1979.

Sunak’s status as the first British Asian and the first Hindu to become UK prime minister may be better appreciated over time. His premiership did steady the economy, although growth remained poor. Across the west, following the inflation shock, most other incumbent leaders are facing electoral strife.

But Sunak, 44, leaves office with a slim record. “Even with the most charitable outlook” it was hard to point to many positive Tory achievements since 2010, said Bale, “and that’s certainly the case for him”. Sunak also failed to mould the Conservatives. The most telling part of his political legacy may be how easily his party moves beyond him.

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