Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Coronation frenzy in UK as crises plague Sunak, others

The Asian Age.  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

The betting now is on who will be next as a whiff of concealment if not corruption hangs over Mr Sunak and his wife

Britain Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. (Photo: AFP)

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party colleagues are not the only politicians to fear police action in a parliamentary democracy. Nicola Sturgeon, the robust head of the Scottish National Party for nearly 16 years, is in the same boat while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s floundering post-Brexit Britain recalls Dean Acheson’s 1962 jibe that England had lost an empire without finding a role.

What the then American secretary of state missed, however, was the serene continuity that lies at the heart of deceptive turbulence as the Carolean Age -- a term coined by Liz Truss, the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history (6 September 2022 to 25 October 2022) -- dawns.

The problems piling up to thwart preparations to crown King Charles III and Queen Camilla on May 6 range from the crisis in adult care to corruption in the London Metropolitan Police, abuses of the legal system to National Health Service patients having to wait for hours (or days) for simple attention, from falling wages, vanishing jobs and inflation raging at 10.4 per cent.

When Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, born of immigrant Jewish Czech parents who fled Nazi rule, quit in late April amidst allegations of bullying and abusive behaviour, his was the third -- and highest-ranking – head to fall since Mr Sunak took office. The previous casualty was Baghdad-born Nadhim Zahawi, Tory chairman -- briefly chancellor of the exchequer under Boris Johnson -- following a damning investigation into his tax affairs. Before that Mr Sunak sacked Gavin Williamson, his close ally and minister without portfolio, also following bullying allegations and multiple reports about bizarre conduct.

The betting now is on who will be next as a whiff of concealment if not corruption hangs over Mr Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, whose shares in Koru Kids, a childcare agency, soared as a result of her husband’s Spring Budget. A parliamentary committee is investigating a potential conflict of interest weeks after Mr Sunak told another committee about the child-minders scheme without breathing a word about his wife’s interest in it. Questioned by an Opposition Labour MP, he reportedly denied any connection. 

Ms Murty’s great wealth keeps her in the public eye. With Infosys, her father N.R. Narayana Murthy’s company, valued at £76.58 billion, the media estimates her 0.93 per cent shareholding at about £730 million. That excludes her other investments, including several businesses that she founded. Her husband’s prime ministerial salary of £163,000 must seem like peanuts. No one would admit it, of course, but it may rankle with some native white Brits that the first Indian-origin Prime Minister and his wife are coloured immigrants far richer than their own royal family.

Given this wealth, the problem of the “missing £600,000”, as it’s called, is small beer. It concerns £600,000 that the Scottish Nationalist Party raised to campaign for independence, an explosive mix of nationalism and money. The days when the SNP seemed such an unstoppable force that Queen Elizabeth II sent out discreet feelers to ascertain its stand on the monarchy are over. Apart from taking the oath of office in both Urdu and English and wearing a sherwani over his Scottish kilt when sworn in as Scotland’s First Minister, Ms Sturgeon’s successor Humza Haroon Yousaf seems orthodox enough with no trace of republican fire on his breath. The unaccustomed kilt being so like a skirt, he might even drop a curtsey to the monarch, as a flummoxed Prince Philip reputedly did when he was made Duke of Edinburgh. The austere Ms Sturgeon, who adamantly refused royalty the curtsey that is its due, has had other things to worry about lately.

Like ill-fated AAP politicians, the SNP’s treasurer, Colin Beattie, was arrested and has since resigned. So was her husband, Peter Murrell, a former party chief executive, and the police seized a £110,000 motorhome from his 92-year-old mother’s drive. Some say that the West Bengal chief minister’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, would love the coach to ferry his team on panchayat election tours. Others claim that the Trinamul Congress’ bus, seen not long ago in Calcutta’s Kalighat area, boasts even grander luxuries. The excitement has overshadowed the Pakistan-origin Mr Yousaf’s plans as First Minister.

The SNP now holds 45 parliamentary seats. Pollsters believe that if it implodes, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour which is already ahead of the Conservatives, can pick up 20 of them.

One wouldn’t think it looking at the jollity of planned Coronation Street lunches and parties, but the fundamental problem is economic. The Covid-19 pandemic took a cruel toll of employment and earnings in a Britain where the misguided break with the European Union, its biggest trading partner, had already crippled the scope for manufacturing and exports. At the time of the 2016 referendum on Brexit, “Little Englander” chauvinism was buoyed up by expectations of a far more lucrative transatlantic trade pact with the United States. Now, seven years later, Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor of the exchequer, confirms that there is no prospect of an “imminent” free trade deal with Washington. Apparently, nary a word was said about it when Mr Sunak met Joe Biden briefly in Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the so-called Good Friday Agreement on peace in the troubled province.

The official defence is that Britain has joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The CPATPP also includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. But it isn’t expected to boost Britain’s GDP by more than a miserly 0.08 per cent. Meanwhile, the IMF gloomily predicts that economic growth will fall 0.3 per cent this year, and touch a paltry one per cent next year. Italy is the only country in Europe that is expected to fare even worse than Britain in 2024.

Meanwhile, hundreds of soldiers were out in the streets the other night to rehearse the Coronation procession that will wend its way along a 1.3-mile route through London. It will be the kind of glittering cavalcade of unforms, robes, horses and carriages that only England can muster. No wonder they could sing in the face of grim wartime danger “There’ll always be an England/ And England shall be free/ If England means as much to you/ As England means to me.”

England bristles with optimistic contradictions. Once as fierce a republican as Ms Sturgeon, Ms Truss had assured King Charles: “The Crown endures. Our nation endures. And in that spirit, I say, God Save the King!”

Barring a scattering of nay-sayers, it’s a greeting that millions of Britons genuinely echo.