The Irish Times view on Rishi Sunak as British prime minister: big challenges ahead

The new prime minister may succeed in restoring stability in the short-term, but he faces a divided party and the ongoing problems caused by Brexit

Incoming prime minister Rishi Sunak arrives at Conservative headquarters in London, Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The victory of Rishi Sunak in the race to be leader of the Conservative Party, and thus British prime minister, at least avoids prolonging the uncertainty followed by the departure of Liz Truss. However, he has much to do to restore a sense of stability to British politics and to the economic outlook.

The relief of the financial markets as he emerged as the front-runner was more to do with what was being avoided than with confidence that Sunak can now chart a way forward. What was avoided, of course, was the prospect of a return to Number 10 Downing Street of Boris Johnson, whose self-serving statement of withdrawal from the contest hopefully marks the final end of a political career which has cost Britain dearly.

Sunak has a reputation for sensible politics and that is welcome. However, like his predecessors as Conservative leader he takes over a fractured party still in thrall to an extremist wing which has pushed continually for the hardest form of Brexit. To stay in office, he needs to keep this group on board and reassure many other MPs who fear for their seats in a general election which must surely happen before too long. Taking the hard decisions which are needed will be far from easy.

Sunak will have no time to waste. Next Monday a new mini-budget is scheduled to try to undo the damage caused by the package presented by former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Despite the subsequent reversal of many of those measures, a large hole remains in the British public finances. The spending cuts and tax rises necessary to close this will be unpopular and risky.


Meanwhile the longer run problems created by Brexit – particularly its impact on UK exports – lurk in the background. The calculated lies and deception of the pro-Brexit lobby that Britain would face into a new golden economic era now stand exposed. Sunak may calm the markets for the moment but dealing with the longer-term fall-out from Brexit will be another matter entirely, particularly as the party he leads is still in denial about the consequences if leaving the EU and its Single Market.

Nowhere is the fall-out from Brexit starker than in Northern Ireland and what Sunak’s election means for the negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol is unclear. He will be focused on domestic issues but has been forced to give assurances to party hardliners on the legislation going through parliament on the protocol. There is a sensible way forward to be found here, but it is not one which will keep everyone happy.

Sunak may get some early wins – the bar is not high given what has gone before. However, the mandate for the government he now leads has run out and there should be a general election. Given the challenges he faces and the remaining splits in the party, this may yet become inevitable sooner rather than later.