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Rishi Sunak leads the race to become the U.K.'s next prime minister

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For the third time in less than two months, the U.K. is about to get a new prime minister. In a surprise announcement, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulled himself out of the running. Another Conservative candidate, Penny Mordaunt, also dropped out with just seconds to go before a party deadline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAHAM BRADY: I can confirm that we have received one valid nomination.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESK THUMPING, CHEERING)

BRADY: And Rishi Sunak is therefore elected as leader of the Conservative Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESK THUMPING, CHEERING)

FADEL: So the former finance minister is now set to become Britain's next premier and the first nonwhite person to hold the office. For the latest, we turn to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us about Rishi Sunak. What does he bring to the job?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I mean, on paper, he certainly would seem the right person for this moment, given the economic problems in this country.

FADEL: Yeah.

LANGFITT: As you were saying, he's former chancellor of the Exchequer. That's Britain's treasury secretary. He has a long financial background, an MBA from Stanford. Worked at Goldman Sachs. And he actually planned a earlier budget. His plan was a much more fiscally conservative approach, even raising taxes. What happened over the summer is fascinating. The Conservative membership of the Conservative Party, which had the final say over the summer in the last prime minister's race, chose Liz Truss, who had unfunded tax cuts, trickle-down economics. This, of course, as we've talked about, crashed the pound, sent interest rates way up. And so the second time around, it looks like the guy who lost out over the summer, who had the right idea, most likely, is now heading to No. 10 Downing Street.

FADEL: So different approaches to the economy. But like Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak will be the second prime minister in a row that will lead the U.K. with no popular mandate. The party, not the public, chose him. So what are the challenges he faces?

LANGFITT: Well, I mean, first off, he's got to unite his own party. It's been divided off and on, really, since the Brexit vote of 2016.

FADEL: Right.

LANGFITT: And he has to lay out a strategy against, you know, a very difficult environment. It's interesting. You know, since he lost, we've hardly heard anything from him. We just - we know he's running for this, but we haven't seen him much publicly. It's almost like he was running what we call, of course, in the United States a Rose Garden strategy. And the stakes are very high because, as you're pointing out, he doesn't have a popular mandate. The other parties, particularly the Labour Party, the opposition Labour Party, really, really wants a general election. And they're over 30 points ahead in the poll. So they would wipe out the Conservatives, for instance, if a election were held today. And what Sunak has to do is convince people that he's really stabilized this country, which has been unusually turbulent, in order to regain also the support of ordinary people.

FADEL: You know, he's also, as we talked about, the first person of color as prime minister when he assumes office, first prime minister of Indian heritage, first Hindu prime minister. Pretty significant moment.

LANGFITT: It is. It's a major milestone in British politics. But what's also so interesting is that this isn't getting a lot of attention in the British press. And there's some reasons for this. One is that people of color have been in key positions for the Conservative Party for a number of years - the last four chancellors, including home secretaries, as well. So in some ways, this seems almost more evolutionary than revolutionary.

FADEL: NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt, thank you so much.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.