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Rishi Sunak will become Britain's new prime minister

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Rishi Sunak, Britain's former chancellor of the Exchequer, will become the country's new prime minister. Sunak heads to No. 10 Downing Street following a tumultuous period in which the country has had three prime ministers in less than two months. He spoke to lawmakers in his Conservative Party today.

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RISHI SUNAK: The United Kingdom is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge. We now need stability and unity.

KELLY: Sunak's ascent is history-making. He is the first person of color to lead the British government, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Sunak is the son of Indian immigrants who moved here from East Africa. At 42, he's also the country's youngest prime minister in more than two centuries. A former hedge fund manager with a degree from Stanford Business School, Sunak seems well-suited to address the country's challenging financial state. Bronwen Maddox runs Chatham House, the London think tank.

BRONWEN MADDOX: If you are reaching for silver linings, one is that the economic plight has forced someone with economic competence to the top of the Conservative field.

LANGFITT: Sunak's political rise has been meteoric. He won a seat in Parliament only in 2015. Five years later, he landed the second-most powerful job in the government - chancellor, Britain's treasury secretary. During the pandemic, Sunak became a household name when he created a rescue package widely credited with saving thousands of businesses.

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SUNAK: Today, I can announce that, for the first time in our history, the government is going to step in and help to pay people's wages.

LANGFITT: After Boris Johnson was forced from office last summer, Sunak ran for prime minister against Liz Truss. She called for unfunded tax cuts to help kickstart growth amid rising inflation and energy bills. Sunak said the country needed to start paying off the debt it had accumulated from helping people during the pandemic. Here he is in a debate with Truss.

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SUNAK: Simply not right.

LIZ TRUSS: Excuse me. Excuse me.

SUNAK: You promised almost 40 billion pounds of unfunded tax cuts, 40 billion pounds more borrowing. That is the country's credit card. It's our children and grandchildren, everyone here...

LANGFITT: Truss won and went ahead with her plan. Global financial markets rejected it. The pound collapsed. Mortgage rates rose. And Truss resigned. Sunak grew up in a port city in the south of England. In this campaign video, he tells a familiar tale of an immigrant family, though from a professional class.

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SUNAK: My mum studied hard and got the qualifications to become a pharmacist. She met my dad, an NHS GP, and they settled in Southampton.

LANGFITT: And, he said, it gave him opportunities they could only dream of. Sunak went on to study at Oxford University. In 2009, he married the daughter of one of India's richest men, who co-founded an IT giant. Sunak came under fire when it was revealed his wife did not pay taxes on some of her foreign earnings. While perfectly legal, it was awkward given Sunak's job in the government.

There has been some backlash to Sunak's run for prime minister. Over the weekend, a caller to LBC, London talk radio, questioned his patriotism.

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UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: Boris has the best chance of winning the general election next time. Rishi's not going to win it. Rishi's not even British. He doesn't love England like Boris does.

LANGFITT: This is totally false. Born in Southampton, Sunak is extremely British, down to his Savile Row suits. Sunder Katwala, who runs a think tank that studies views around race and identity, says most people do not agree with that caller and Britons are becoming accustomed to seeing people of color in top government positions.

SUNDER KATWALA: In the last five years, we've seen ethnic minority chancellors of the Exchequer, home secretaries, foreign secretaries at a remarkable pace. So everyone's got used to that, and everybody thinks you shouldn't make too much of that.

LANGFITT: In one sense, it's remarkable that the descendant of British colonial subjects will become the country's prime minister. But it also seems, as Katwala says, like a natural process.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.