NRIs in Line for High Office in the UK Government

Posted by Written by Chris Devonshire-Ellis Reading Time: 11 minutes

We look at some of the candidates who could succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of the UK or join the next British government. As things stand, British Asian ministers are pipped for key government roles and are likely to feature prominently in shaping future UK-Indian ties. 


With the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, having resigned following a series of personal political debacles, senior Conservative politicians are throwing their hat in to be his replacement. Interestingly, five of the original candidates to potentially hold the Prime Ministerial role were Asian in background, with three now having confirmed their participation in the leadership race that leads to becoming Prime Minister. Of these, one, Rishi Sunak, being both of Indian origin and holding significant Indian business interests, is the bookies’ favorite for the top job. We examine his background and how this may impact UK-Indian relations and take a look at other senior UK, ethnically Asian politicians who may also fill major roles in the next government. All appointments will be made by September 5.   

UK Prime Ministerial candidates  

Rishi Sunak – previous Chancellor of the Exchequer

Rishi Sunak, born May 12, 1980, served as the British Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2020 to 2022, having previously served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 2019 to 2020. A member of the Conservative Party, he has been Member of Parliament for Richmond (Yorkshire) since 2015.  

Sunak was born in Southampton to Indian parents who had emigrated from East Africa and was educated at Winchester College. He attended Lincoln College, Oxford, and later gained an MBA from Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar studying economics.  

He is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of N. R. Narayana Murthy, an Indian billionaire who founded Infosys. After graduating, Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and as a partner at various hedge funds.  

Elected for Richmond (Yorks) at the 2015 general election, Sunak served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government and voted for the Brexit withdrawal agreement. After Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he appointed Sunak as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Sunak replaced Sajid Javid as Chancellor of the Exchequer after his resignation in February 2020.  

As Chancellor, Sunak was prominent in the government’s response to the economic ramifications of the decision to impose national lockdown to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom. In April 2022, he became the first Chancellor in British history to have been sanctioned for breaking the law while in office after being issued a fixed penalty notice for breaching COVID-19 regulations during lockdowns. He resigned as Chancellor on July 5, 2022, citing differences between himself and Boris Johnson in his resignation letter.  

As both a senior politician and an economist with commercial experience, Sunak has extensive India connections and family ties via his wife to the Indian commercial elite. While he will not wish to be seen as avidly pro-India, the UK government has been working on a trade agreement with India. Sunak will be in a position to see both sides of the coin, although will come under increased Indian pressure to expand trade and other ties with the country.   

How that fits with India’s position with Russia remains to be seen. A Sunak Prime Ministerial position may also negatively influence any position as regards China, already considered a bogeyman in deep quarters of British politics.   

Suella Braverman – current England & Wales Attorney-General  

Braverman has been knocked out of the second ballot for Prime Minister but is likely to continue to have a major influence within the next government.

Sue-Ellen Cassiana “Suella” Braverman QC (née Fernandes; born April 3, 1980) is a British politician and barrister who has been the Attorney General for England and Wales since 2020. She has been Member of Parliament for Fareham (Hampshire) since 2015.  

Braverman was appointed as Queen’s Counsel automatically on appointment as Attorney General for England and Wales and Advocate General for Northern Ireland in February 2020.  

Braverman was born to Christie and Uma Fernandes (née Mootien-Pillay), both of Indian origin, who had emigrated to Britain in the 1960s from Kenya and Mauritius, respectively. Her mother’s family is from Tamil Nadu and her father’s from Goa, and Braverman is the niece of Mahen Kundasamy, the former Mauritian High Commissioner to London.   

Braverman was born in Harrow, Greater London, and grew up in Wembley, attending the Uxendon Manor Primary School in Brent and Heathfield School, Pinner, on a partial scholarship, after which she read law at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Braverman continued her education in France as an Erasmus Program student and then as an Entente Cordiale Scholar, where she completed a master’s degree in European and French law at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University. She is known to be pro-Brexit.   

Braverman is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) and attends the London Buddhist Center. She took her oath of office on the Dhammapada. She will be seen as a partial win for India, while her Buddhist views and legal background would also make her a suitable candidate to win friends in Asian Buddhist nations, such as Sri Lanka and Thailand. We see her potentially holding a senior trade role where her legal experience would be invaluable. Her broader Asian, as opposed to mainly Indian background would be of relevance in such a role and she would also be a plus within African trade given her French language capabilities. That carries resonance alongside her Mauritian background – a UK trade agreement with the country, especially in financial services – would act as a platform for UK companies to access the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), a prize indeed.   

Nadhim Zahawi – current Chancellor of the Exchequer 

Zahawi failed to gain enough support to get past the first round; however, he can be expected to continue to have a major influence within the next government.

Nadhim Zahawi was born on June 2, 1967 in Iraq. He has been Member of Parliament for Stratford-on-Avon since 2010. He was Secretary of State for Education from 2021 to 2022 and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment from 2020 to 2021. 

Born to a Kurdish family in Baghdad, Zahawi was co-founder of the international Internet-based market research firm YouGov of which he was chief executive until February 2010 and was, until January 2018, chief strategy officer for Gulf Keystone Petroleum. He was the Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon (the birthplace Shakespeare) during the 2010 general election and was known to be pro-Brexit. 

Zahawi became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families in 2018, then for Business and Industry in 2019, and in 2020 he was given additional responsibility for the COVID-19 vaccination program as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment. In 2021, he was promoted to Secretary of State for Education. On July 5, 2022, he became the Chancellor of the Exchequer after the resignation of Rishi Sunak. 

Zahawi’s continuing dual role maintaining senior executive commercial roles while also serving as an MP have earned him a great deal of money. By 2021, it was reported that Zahawi or his wife owned £100 million in property, including an industrial estate, three properties in London, a country house with stables in Warwickshire, and a property in Dubai, although he states that his main interest is in serving his political constituency. Zahawi is reportedly a Muslim although he has not made any references to religion during his career. 

Zahawi has extensive contacts throughout the Middle East, although in terms of any perceived Muslim sensibilities, it is uncertain how he would fall when it comes to preferences for ties with India, although the business elite would most certainly be welcoming. Another question is with regards his ability to balance his business interests against ministerial duties without having significant political experience – Zahawi has been able to enjoy a rapid rise through the British political elite. Despite his Muslim heritage, he will be of intense interest to India’s business elite for his contacts throughout the Middle East, although he can be expected to be more pro-China than the other contenders.    

Other ministerial candidates  

Sajid Javid – previous Chancellor of the Exchequer & Home Secretary

Sajid Javid was born on December 5, 1969 and served as British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from June 2021 to July 2022, having previously served as Home Secretary from 2018 to 2019 and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2019 to 2020. A member of the Conservative Party, he has been Member of Parliament for Bromsgrove (Worcestershire) since 2010.  

Javid was born in Rochdale, Lancashire, to a British Pakistani family, and raised largely in Bristol. He studied Economics and Politics at the University of Exeter, where he joined the Conservative Party. Working in banking, he rose to become a Managing Director at Deutsche Bank. He was elected to the House of Commons in May 2010, where he served as a Junior Treasury Minister before being promoted to the Cabinet office as Culture Secretary in 2014. After the 2015 general election, Javid became British Business Secretary, and voted to remain in the EU. Following the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, he went on to serve as Communities Secretary from 2016 to 2018, and became the Home Secretary, (the first British Asian to do so) later that year.  

During the 2019 Conservative Party leadership contest, Javid stood for election as leader of the Party, finishing in fourth place. The successful candidate, now Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appointed him Chancellor of the Exchequer. Javid resigned in February 2020 after refusing a demand from Johnson that he dismiss his advisers. In June 2021, Javid was reappointed to Johnson’s cabinet as Health Secretary. This made him a prominent figure in the British government response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom. He supported an end to most generalized public health restrictions, such as face mask mandates, until emergence of the Omicron variant in November 2021 and expanded the vaccination program. This will be of great interest to commercial India, one of the world’s largest vaccine producers.   

Javid resigned as Health Secretary on July 5, 2022, almost simultaneously with Rishi Sunak resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

While his family heritage is Muslim, Javid himself is non-practising but has remarked that he was ‘the first Muslim Home Secretary to be invited to celebrate Ramadan’, whereas his wife is a practising Christian. He has received death threats from Muslim groups, which possibly align him more with the Indian government than family ties to Pakistan. As a British Minister he is possibly the more principled of the three candidates yet comes with the Pakistan-India baggage: both sides will want to claim him as one of theirs, and this could create complexities both within the UK and in India-Pakistan relations. He would be, however, a good pick for a Foreign Ministerial role given the potential shift to Asia in the next UK government make-up.   

Priti Patel – previous British Home Secretary  

Priti Sushil Patel, born March 29, 1972, served as British Home Secretary since 2019. A member of the Conservative Party, she was Secretary of State for International Development from 2016 to 2017. Patel has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Witham (Essex) since 2010. She is ideologically on the right wing of the Conservative Party and considers herself a Thatcherite.  

Patel was born in London to a Ugandan-Indian family. She was educated at Keele University and the University of Essex. She worked for the PR firm Weber Shandwick for several years, including work involving the Myanmar military government, before seeking a political career, and was elected MP for Witham at the 2010 general election, and was then re-elected in 2015, 2017, and 2019. During this time, Patel was appointed Minister of State for Employment and was vice-chair of the Conservative Friends of Israel.  

Patel was a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit during the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Then Prime Minister Theresa May subsequently appointed Patel Secretary of State for International Development. However, in 2017, Patel was involved in a political scandal involving unauthorized meetings with the Government of Israel, which breached the Ministerial Code, leading to her dismissal from office.  

Under Boris Johnson’s premiership, she became British Home Secretary in July 2019. In this role, she launched a points-based immigration system, an asylum deal with Rwanda to address the English Channel migrant crossings, advocated the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and approved the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States. She was also found to have breached the Ministerial Code in relation to incidents of bullying. Patel is a hardcore right-wing politician and has not been shy of enforcing unpopular social policies in the UK.  

In January 2017, Patel won Indian the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honor that the Indian government gives to non-resident Indians or people of Indian origin, while various policies attributed to her appear to indicate a potential anti-Muslim bias, an issue than the Indian Modi government apparently endorses. Her views have included negative stances on UK immigration, gay rights, and heavy support for increased policing, while she has been accused of combining her political career with ‘inappropriate’ commercial interests. She is married to Andrew Sawyer, an executive for NASDAQ. The Indian government will consider Patel to be one of their own. Given her security background, we see her taking a significant role in the UK and India’s membership of the ‘Quad’ network.  

Comments  

There appears little doubt that India is going to loom large in future British foreign policy, as these five individuals will continue to wield considerable power within the UK. The beneficiary can be expected to be New Delhi while Beijing is pushed deeper down the influential pecking order. In terms of the Center – Sunak would be a resounding win.  

Braverman would be seen as potentially more uniting, as a prominent Buddhist, yet without the more direct Indian ties that Sunak has. Her legal background will stand her in good stead, and we see her in time as fulfilling a major trade role, if not in the upcoming government.  

Zahawi has been not considered either politically established enough and too business investment-influenced to cut it as a PM, while his foreign policy leanings are relatively unknown and more likely to lean towards the Gulf. In which case, it is possible he is more pro-China than the other candidates. His role as Chancellor of the Exchequer may be continued as he has hardly had any time to begin the role prior to Johnson’s resignation, although he could also end up in trade.  

Javid is possibly the more balanced yet may struggle to determine parity between the sub-continents’ raucous Muslim and Hindu dynamics, while his appeal lies more with an ability to influence political and foreign affairs rather than his business interests. We see him as a potential Foreign Minister. India will be cautious, but Javid would be accepted.  

Patel’s surname is originally from Gujarat, the same area of North-West India that the current Prime Minister is from. While not PM-material, she could potentially possess the largest amount of clout in India itself after Sunak. It will be interesting to see what role she ends up with.  

Whatever happens, in exchange for improved UK trade access for India, London will be wanting the Indian Center to reduce its energy trade and military ties to Russia. India will also be asking for British support for a seat at the UN Security Council, an interesting situation as China and Russia have already stated they will support such a move. 

What is happening in the UK is a profound change: the effective immediate influence of a far larger, yet previously subservient nation upon the very fabric of British politics and the recognition of its social order. Britain as a nation now ruled by the descendants of Asian immigrants. It may be a partial solution to Brexit and a rare opportunity for the UK to look east in shoes that have not been so overwhelmingly British and Indian-filled since the last days of the East Indian Company – except this time the shoe is on the other foot. 

The perception of what constitutes ‘the West’ may also come under scrutiny as the UK falls under the influence of Asian politics and business interests – a highly different political, social, and trade influential development from any of the other European nations. 

Can India and the UK use this new dynamic to their advantage? That is now the new question to ask as Westminster once again treads an old path towards European-Asian political and trade influence.  

This article was originally published July 13, 2022. It was last updated July 14, 2022.

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