Who is Rishi Sunak? PM battles to stay in power after election gamble

As the prime minister calls a snap election, here’s everything you need to know about Rishi Sunak and what he’s saying about the biggest issues in British politics

Sunak has been prime minister since October 2022, but who is he and what does he think about the key issues. (Getty, Facebook, ITN)
Rishi Sunak has been prime minister since October 2022, but who is he and what does he think about the key issues. (Getty, Facebook, ITN)

Rishi Sunak has the fight of his political life ahead of him after calling a snap general election for 4 July. The polls have consistently painted a very bleak picture for the prime minister, with Labour holding on to a double-digit poll lead over his Conservatives.

Recent by-election results suggest that Labour is likely to win a landslide victory – but there’s still time for the PM to turn it around.

Here’s everything you need to know about Sunak and what’s he’s saying about the biggest issues in British politics right now.

Sunak was born in Southampton in 1980, the eldest of three children. His Indian parents both arrived from East Africa in the 1960s. A football-mad boy whose childhood idol was Matt Le Tissier, Sunak was described by the family’s neighbours as a child with “lovely manners”.

In his youngest years, the PM attended Oakmount, a local private prep school, and later Stroud School in Romsey. According to a recent biography, fellow pupil Ollie Case said: “He was someone that was talked about. The teachers would say: ‘He’s going to be prime minister'."

But, growing up in the 1980s and 90s, he also remembers experiencing racism. “My mother was obsessed with us not having accents,” Sunak has said.

Rishi Sunak on ITV Tonight Show : Up Close https://www.itv.com/watch/tonight/1a2803/1a9757a0143
Rishi Sunak was football-mad as a boy growing up in Southampton. (ITV)

Sunak is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian entrepreneur and multi-billionaire. The pair first met in 2004 at Stanford University, his future wife apparently attracted to his “honesty and integrity”.

Five years later they married in a two-day Indian wedding held in Bangalore. The couple have two daughters, Krishna and Anoushka, who will turn 13 and 11 this year, both of whom are largely kept out of the public eye.

Sunak attended Oakmount, a local private prep school, and later Stroud School in Romsey.  (Rishi Sunak, Instagram)
Sunak attended Oakmount, a local private prep school, and later Stroud School in Romsey. (Rishi Sunak, Instagram)

Yashvir Sunak, Rishi’s father, was born in Kenya. He arrived in the UK to study medicine and then stayed, becoming an NHS GP. His mother, Usha, was born in Tanzania and is a pharmacist.

The couple met in Britain and settled in Southampton in the 1970s. Usha is still the director and lead pharmacist at Sunak Pharmacy in Southampton.

As a teenager Sunak studied at Winchester College where he was, he says, a self-confessed “geek”. According to a recent biography, the “naughtiest” thing the prime minister did during his school days “was to smuggle a hand-held television into the school so that he did not miss any key games of Euro 96”.

The childhood home of Rishi Sunak in, Basset, Southampton on October 26, 2022 in Southampton, England.  Rishi Sunak was born in Southampton on the south coast of England to parents of Punjabi Indian descent who migrated to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s. Sunak is the first UK Prime Minister of colour and the first Hindu. (Photo by Chris Eades/Getty Images)
The childhood home of Rishi Sunak in Southampton. (Getty Images, photo taken in 2022)

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone with such an unblemished record, he went on to become the school’s head boy. Sunak worked while studying, delivering medicines for his mother’s pharmacy and as a waiter at a local Indian restaurant.

After school, Sunk read philosophy, politics and economics at Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating in 2001 with a first class degree. While still at university he held an internship at the Conservative Party campaign headquarters and joined the party, but went on studying before entering politics.

He earned his MBA from Stanford in 2006 as a Fulbright Scholar, meaning he was selected among the most promising candidates from the UK.

As prime minister, Rishi Sunak earns £80,807 on top of a salary of £84,144 for being an MP. But his current income from Westminster pales in comparison to his family’s vast wealth through marriage.

The Sunday Times valued the couple’s joint fortune at £730m. Murty's father is the co-founder of Infosys, an Indian tech conglomerate, in which she holds shares estimated at around £430m. Her family is also involved in a £900m business arrangement with Amazon in India, and she is a shareholder of multiple other companies.

Rishi Sunak's family pharmacy
Rishi Sunak's mother is still the director and lead pharmacist at Sunak Pharmacy in Southampton.

Before entering politics Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and a series of hedge funds. He is also known to have invested in blind trusts, in which investments are made without holders knowing where the funds are located. These arrangements reportedly hold Sunak’s own multi-million-pound fortune.

Sunak is not only the first prime minister of colour and of Indian heritage but he is also the first practising Hindu to hold the biggest job in UK politics.

He has spoken of his pride in his Hindu faith, saying, “that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I am”. He said: “Having faith gives you resilience, gives you strength that is important and it provides an outlook on life which I find particularly valuable.”

The prime minister’s biggest challenge in office has been the crisis in the NHS - and to many people in the sector his government has been found wanting. “We have not made enough progress,” Sunak said when asked about his commitment to cut NHS waiting lists during an interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV. Asked if that meant he had failed, the prime minister replied: “Yes, we have."

Sunak expects to see waiting lists start to reduce this spring, and blames the delays on “industrial action”, as disputes with junior doctors and consultants over pay and conditions continue. Yet Sunak himself has been blamed for holding up a deal that would prevent more walkouts.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, his wife Akshata Murty and daughters Anoushka and Krishna, second left, at Santa Monica Pier, in Santa Monica, California, on their summer holiday, Thursday Aug. 3, 2023. (Emma McIntyre/Pool via AP)
Sunak, his wife Akshata and daughters Anoushka and Krishna (second left) at Santa Monica Pier, California, on their summer holiday in 2023. (AP)

According to the prime minister, illegal migration threatens to “overwhelm” Europe. In June 2023 he claimed his plan to “stop the boats” and tackle illegal immigration was working, but by August 2023 he had changed his mind: “It’s not an easy problem to fix,” he told broadcasters. “I never said we would be able to solve it overnight.”

He has staked much of his reputation on the government's Rwanda Bill - his plan to deport asylum seekers to the east African country that finally became law last month, after months of legal and procedural challenges. It has paved the way for deportation flights to get off the ground within weeks.

He described his policy, which he says will act as a deterrent to people traffickers, as being “the will of the people” – yet polling suggests low support for such a punitive approach.

The policy, coupled with Conservative talk of limits on legal migration, shows that the government is committed to taking a hard line on the issue, despite the risk of alienating more moderate voters.

The Rwanda policy is not universally popular.  (YouGov)
The Rwanda policy is not universally popular. (YouGov)

The prime minister has told hard-pressed working families that they will feel some relief from the cost of living crisis as inflation continues to drop following its highs of October 2022. He described the government’s tax cuts as “meaningful” and has welcomed the dip in mortgage rates at the turn of the year.

Sunak says falling inflation will have the biggest impact on family budgets “and will start to ease some of those pressures” and that he was right to focus on that figure. However, the global drop in energy prices is probably the biggest factor in easing the hit on wallets - something that the prime minister has no control over.

However, the fall in inflation to 2.3% on 22 May this year – the lowest it has been in nearly three years – was likely one of the key factors in persuading Sunak to call a snap election many weeks earlier than experts had predicted.

Can we expect more handouts or tax breaks to help balance family budgets? Not according to Sunak, who has warned voters that it’s time to “move on” from government support.

The triple-lock pensions policy is a tricky one for Sunak – especially since Labour has committed to retaining the policy. Any change to a policy that has become a hallmark of recent Conservative governments would not go down well with the 12 million pensioners it would likely impact – many of whom are lifelong Tory voters.

Last November, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said pensions should start being pegged to an average of inflation and wage growth, which would help reduce state spending over time.

Sunak’s response to that was ambiguous to say the least: “We are the government that has … delivered the triple lock and it is why, right now, pensions are, depending on how you look at it, £800 or £900 bigger than they otherwise would have been.” He is yet to confirm whether it will appear in the manifesto.