UK PM Sunak calls election, leaving Brits cringing over memory of his Musk love-in

Man who promised the Unicorn Kingdom must now face judgement from the real thing

Drenched in British spring rain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an election yesterday, surprising colleagues and commentators. And if opinion polls are anything to go by he will lose and leave behind a tech legacy which is patchy at best.

Perhaps the intentions were good to begin with. Sunak took power after his uncontested promotion to ruling Conservative Party leader, after the undignified departure of Liz Truss, who is remembered only for failing to outlast the shelf life of a supermarket lettuce.

Not long after becoming prime minister in October 2022, Sunak helped launch a plan he claimed would "cement the UK's place as a science and technology superpower by 2030."


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Backed by over £370 million ($471 million) in new government funding — the kind of small change Jeff Bezos might find under the seat of one of his luxury sports cars — the government promised to boost infrastructure, investment and skills for the "UK's most exciting growing technologies, from quantum and supercomputing through to AI."

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, with Elon Musk

A still from the toecurlingly embarrassing interview between Sunak and Musk

A few months later, in November 2023, Sunak unveiled £29.5 billion ($37.5 billion) of pledged investment from international companies and financial institutions in the UK tech scene, which would include projects in tech, life sciences, infrastructure, housing and renewable energy.

Part of the funding was aimed at "levelling up," a Conservative plan to reduce the economic disparity between UK regions.

But by March this year, a committee of MPs remained to be convinced. According to the influential Public Accounts committee, Sunak was unable to provide any compelling examples of what the "levelling up" funding had delivered so far, hi-tech or otherwise.

If that was the best Sunak had to offer, what about the worst?

The cringe-intolerant were made to suffer Sunak adlibbing as he promoted a £10 million ($12.7 million) spending pledge for AI. Attempting to impress business leaders, the former chancellor of the exchequer said ministers had been on a promotional junket to California, to put forward the idea that the UK was becoming the Unicorn Kingdom, as in, a hotbed for successful startups, rather than maned mythical creatures. Never mind the fact that Sunak's own plan to help out with small business software investment under-delivered spectacularly, the moniker was never going to stick.

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More toe-curling pronouncements were yet to come. Following his hosting of an AI Safety Summit, which achieved a non-binding aspirational commitment to share "scientific and evidence-based understanding" of AI risks, Sunak belittled himself by taking part in a scripted interview with controversial tech CEO Elon Musk.

As the curtain falls on the UK's season of political pantomime, this author, for one, might be tempted to feel sorry for Rishi Sunak, but since he is reportedly the richest ever politician to hold the UK's most senior political office, this presents something of a challenge. As well as his own wealth accrued as a Goldman Sachs investment banker and hedge fund manager, he has married into one of India's richest families by tying the knot with Akshata Murty, daughter of N. R. Narayana Murthy, a founder of the Indian multinational IT company Infosys.

By the end of the summer, Sunak may not be prime minister but he will be doing OK. The UK tech scene though, will have to wait and see what the prospects of a Labour government holds. ®

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