Defeated Rishi Sunak quits with call for kindness, decency and tolerance

05 July 2024 - 14:36 By Reuters
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Outgoing British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Image: Dan Kitwood/pool via Reuters

Rishi Sunak said on Friday he would resign as prime minister and Conservative Party leader after losing heavily to Keir Starmer's Labour Party, leaving with an apology, a tribute to Britain and a call to protect “kindness, decency and tolerance”.

His defeat ends 14 years of Conservative government — a period marked by division, political instability and, more recently, economic pain. He hands control of the world's sixth largest economy to centre-left Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.

“I have given this job my all but you have sent a clear signal the government of the UK must change and yours is the only judgment that matters,” Sunak said in a speech outside the prime minister's office in Downing Street.

“I have heard your anger, your disappointment and I take responsibility for this loss.”

Sunak said whatever their disagreements, he respected Starmer as a “decent public-spirited man”.

“He and his family deserve the best of our understanding as they make the huge transition to their new lives behind this door,” he said.

Sunak's tone marked a stark contrast to his approach to the final weeks of the campaign when, increasingly desperate as opinion polls refused to budge, he tore into Starmer, warning the Labour leader would hike taxes, hammer the economy and threaten its security.

Sunak spent 20 months in charge of the party, inheriting an economy suffering soaring inflation and a Conservative reputation badly damaged by a messy end to Boris Johnson's tenure and the even more chaotic, and brief, leadership of Liz Truss.

He called the election earlier than expected, banking on an improvement in economic data to help him close the gap with Labour, but failed to make any headway in a campaign beset by missteps and delivered the worst result in the party's history.

“I will step down as party leader, not immediately but once the formal arrangements for selecting my successor are in place,” he said.

“It is important that after 14 years in government the Conservative Party rebuilds, but also that it takes up its crucial role in opposition professionally and effectively.”

Speaking earlier in the day, Sunak said he had spoken to Starmer to congratulate him and praised the “peaceful and orderly manner” of the transfer of power in Britain.

“That is something that should give us confidence in our country's stability and future,” he said.

Nevertheless, Sunak bears the brunt of his Conservative colleagues' anger over the scale of the loss while his party faces an ideological battle over how it can chart a course back to power.

In conversations with Reuters, many Conservative MPs criticised his decision to call the election early, saying the party wasn't properly prepared and calling his policy platform “cautious” and “uninspiring”.

Reflecting on his time in office, Sunak, Britain's first ethnic-minority prime minister, paid tribute to the electorate.

“One of the most remarkable things about Britain is how unremarkable it is that two generations after my grandparents came here with little, I could become prime minister and I could watch my two young daughters light Diwali candles on the steps in Downing Street,” he said.

“We must hold true to that idea of who we are. That vision of kindness, decency and tolerance that has always been the British way.

“This is a difficult day at the end of a number of difficult days, but I leave this job honoured to have been your prime minister.”

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