Penny Mordaunt, the last rival left after Boris Johnson dramatically pulled out, failed to secure the necessary 100 nominations from her fellow MPs.
“Rishi Sunak is therefore elected as leader of the Conservative party,” senior backbencher Graham Brady said, as Mordaunt pledged her “full support” for Sunak.
Triumph for 42-year-old Sunak came after Johnson’s decision late Sunday to abandon his political comeback bid.
Just weeks after he lost out to Liz Truss to lead the ruling Tories, Sunak, therefore, pulled off a stunning reversal in fortunes.
Addressing members of his party behind closed doors after the announcement, Sunak reportedly received a rapturous reception.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon, whose nationalist government in Edinburgh wants to hold an independence referendum next year, was among the first to congratulate Sunak.
“I wish him well… notwithstanding our political differences,” she said.
“That he becomes the first British Asian — indeed the first from any minority ethnic background — to become PM is a genuinely significant moment,” she said.
– Abrupt end to contest –
The contest, triggered by outgoing leader Truss’s resignation on Thursday, had required candidates to secure the support of at least 100 Conservative MPs by 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Monday.
Only Sunak made the threshold, Brady announced.
Sunak, a wealthy Hindu descendant of immigrants from India and East Africa, had crossed that threshold by Friday night and amassed nearly 200 public nominations — more than half the parliamentary Tory party.
Johnson’s withdrawal from the race — before he had even formally announced his candidacy — left cabinet member Mordaunt the only other declared contender.
However, she failed to garner the necessary support, putting an abrupt end to the contest.
– ‘First British Asian PM‘ –
Sunak’s victory came on the day Hindus worldwide mark the start of the five-day festival of Diwali — a celebration of the victory of good over evil.
When he was chancellor of the exchequer, in November 2020, Sunak marked the occasion by lighting oil lamps on the front step of the chancellor’s official residence at 11 Downing Street.
The Tories were forced into their second leadership contest since the summer due to Truss’s resignation after only 44 days following a disastrous market response to her tax-slashing mini-budget.
Truss — who pledged Sunak her “full support” — had replaced Johnson in early September following a government revolt led by Sunak over a slew of scandals, most notably the “Partygate” controversy involving Covid lockdown-breaching parties.
Johnson’s attempt to make an immediate return to Downing Street had raised the prospect of months of disarray and disunity within the ruling Conservatives.
Critical backbench Tory MPs warned there could have been a wave of resignations under Johnson’s renewed leadership, which might have led to the general election demanded by opposition parties. One is not due for at least two years.
Johnson had cut short a Caribbean holiday to return to Britain on Saturday.
But in a sign of his diminished political standing, Johnson swiftly conceded late Sunday, admitting “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament”.
“I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” he said while insisting he had secured the 100 nominations needed to progress.
Sunak was quick to pay tribute to Johnson, tweeting: “I truly hope he continues to contribute to public life at home and abroad.”
– ‘Profound crisis‘ –
Mordaunt had insisted she was best placed to take the fight to the opposition Labour party, which is soaring in the polls amid a cost of living crisis.
In an article in the right-wing Daily Telegraph, she also stressed her commitment to a “lower-tax, high productivity economy”.
Sunak kept a lower profile during the contest, writing simply on his Twitter account that the country faced a “profound economic crisis”.
“I want to fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country,” he said.
Labour is demanding a general election now.
“The Tories have crowned Rishi Sunak without him saying a word about what he would do as PM. He has no mandate, no answers and no ideas,” tweeted Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader.
Anand Menon, politics professor at King’s College London, said Sunak becoming prime minister was a landmark.
“To have, if we do, a prime minister of Indian origin is a really, really big deal,” he told BBC television shortly before the result was confirmed.
He added that he was reassured by how little comment there had been about it.
“In a sense… we seem to have normalised this,” he said.