Rishi Sunak, the practical politician who shifted right as prime minister

Initially moderate, the British premier is trying to sway voters by taking a conservative stance on migration, environment and gender issues

An activist wearing a British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak mask protests against rising interest rates outside the Bank of England in London on Thursday.
An activist wearing a British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak mask protests against rising interest rates outside the Bank of England in London on Thursday.TOLGA AKMEN (EFE)

During his brief 10 months in office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has implemented a distinctly right-wing agenda. The Conservative Party leader has championed controversial measures like stricter immigration policies, expanding gas and oil concessions in the North Sea, and vetoing Scotland’s gender self-determination law. Sunak’s recent decisions go against his previously moderate image and are viewed by analysts as an effort to boost poll numbers, given the Labor Party’s current lead. But Sunak’s shift to the right is also driven by long-held ideological positions.

Sunak, a protégé of David Cameron, the prime minister who sponsored the Brexit referendum, risked his political career in 2016 when he supported the U.K.’s exit from the European Union. However his pursuit of fiscal prudence in last year’s Conservative Party primaries faltered against Liz Truss, who appeased the party’s ranks by making the promises they wanted to hear.

Sunak, who was the finance minister until July 2022, was labeled a loser and a centrist, two highly undesirable traits for the current Tory base. Meanwhile, even though Truss only supported Brexit after the 2016 referendum, she was able to garner support from the right-wing faction of the party over Sunak. Truss won the primaries, but her term as prime minister was short-lived, lasting only 45 days.

Truss’s precipitous fall caused by her disastrous tax cut solidified Sunak as her ideal replacement, a proven leader known for his calm competence. Sunak’s support for fiscal responsibility and measured approach further strengthened his moderate credentials. However, after being in office for 10 months, this perception is now starting to fade away. The Economist recently described him as “the most right-wing Conservative leader of his generation,” in an article that summed up the dissonance between perception and reality with the ironic headline: “No, really. Rishi Sunak is a right-winger.”

Pablo de Orellana, an expert on far-right political movements with a doctorate in international relations from King’s College London, said: “Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, the party leaned more toward the right, particularly in terms of populist ideas such as birthright and nationalism, rather than economic aspects. Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, is attempting a blend of both approaches. While he subscribes to the belief in absolute deregulation and the banking sector’s capacity to drive economic growth, he also recognizes the need to adopt right-wing populist policies for gaining legitimacy.”

Sunak’s understated style, meticulousness, and relative youth (43) have somewhat obscured his convictions, making him appear more centrist in nature. “He’s made a deal with the devil. Since taking office, Sunak has aligned himself with the far-right wing of the Conservatives. He believes that populist ideas rooted in the new right will secure votes,” said de Orellana.

Since winning a Parliament seat in 2015, Sunak has been open about his political ideas. As a former Goldman Sachs banker and member of the liberal wing of the party, he expressed admiration for Nigel Lawson, whose fiscal doctrine underpinned Thatcherism. Sunak is now seen as Lawson’s natural successor, but some conservatives criticize Sunak for his hesitancy to support lower taxes due to the uncertainty caused by Brexit and significant public spending during the pandemic.

In 2022, during his battle with Truss to replace Boris Johnson, lingering doubts about his conservative credentials led him to publicly deny being a closet socialist. His denial added to the perception of him as a centrist, but his real stance has become cloudier since taking office. In early August, before going to California on his first vacation in four years, Sunak voiced his disagreement with measures by local authorities to curb pollution, like establishing restrictions on traffic in neighborhoods. “I am on the side of the drivers,” he declared.

Cameron was the first Tory leader to strongly support environmental issues. Theresa May followed by signing a zero-emissions commitment by 2050 into law. In July, Sunak announced controversial offshore oil and gas concessions in the North Sea and blocked a Scottish gender self-determination measure.

Pablo de Orellana attributes this drift to both ideology and strategy. “To better understand his ideological conviction, one can look at his support for Brexit. He advocated for financial deregulation to position the U.K. as a European Singapore. However, he now believes that right-wing backing is crucial to implementing his vision.” But de Orellana also sees an element of survival in Sunak. “He feels extremely insecure. Since he didn’t win the general election and isn’t the face of the party, he must seek to gain legitimacy from the previous election victory [won by Johnson in 2019].”

Sunak’s conservative agenda and the European Court of Human Rights have clashed over his policy of sending irregular migrants to Rwanda, which was upheld by the British Supreme Court. There has also been criticism of a proposal to establish a floating prison in the south of England for housing asylum seekers. “These conflicts are symbolic of the new right,” said de Orellana.

Sunak’s right-wing drift presents a dilemma. When he became the third prime minister within six weeks last October, his reputation for restraint and economic acumen worked in his favor. Following the chaos of Johnson and the disappointment of Truss, Sunak’s low-key profile elevated him in the polls and made him more popular than his own party.

After 13 years in power, the Conservative Party is showing some public opinion wear and tear, whereas the youngish Sunak projected discipline and competence. “But he has surrounded himself with people who are not at all moderate by Conservative standards,” said de Orellana. Labor landed a resounding blow on the Conservatives during the municipal elections in May, so the upcoming general elections in January 2025 already have Sunak on high alert.

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