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Record 4 Indian-origin ministers in PM May's team

Prime Minister Theresa May’s “refresh” of her team has resulted in the highest number of Indian-origin ministers in British history.

world Updated: Jan 10, 2018 23:00 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
File photo of Rishi Sunak, the son-in-law of Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, who has been appointed a junior minister by UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
File photo of Rishi Sunak, the son-in-law of Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, who has been appointed a junior minister by UK Prime Minister Theresa May. (Facebook)

Downing Street called it a “refresh” of Prime Minister Theresa May’s team while the opposition Labour saw it as a “pointless and lacklustre PR exercise”, but herteam now has the highest number of Indian-origin ministers in British history - four.

The 1.5 million-strongIndiandiaspora is now represented by a minister of state (Alok Sharma) and three junior ministers (Rishi Sunak, Shailesh Vara and Suella Fernandes). Sunak, the son-in-law of Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, and Fernandes are first-time ministers.

Called “parliamentary undersecretary of state”, the junior ministers are the third and lowest tier in the hierarchy in a ministry, after the secretary (cabinet level) and minister of state. Their role includes coordination and specific roles within the ministry.

The only Indian-origin minister to hold a cabinet position so far was Priti Patel, whose tenure as the secretary of international development lasted less than six months – July to November 2017, when she was dropped for her ministerial overreach during a holiday in Israel.

In the charged Brexit atmosphere, May has been performing a delicate balancing act between the rival camps in the Conservative Party and the ministerial team. She may not have intended it but the four Indian-origin ministers are equally divided on the sensitive issue.

Sharma coordinated the pro-European Union “British Indians for IN” campaign before the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU. The campaign was supported by most Indian-origin MPs, including Shailesh Vara, who has previously held junior ministerial posts.

Sunak and Fernandes are firmly in the pro-Brexit camp. Fernandes chairs the European Research Group of Conservative MPs that acts as an influential pressure group to hold the government to account on the direction and details of ongoing talks in Brussels and London.

In the May team’s “refresh”, Sharma’s portfolio was changed from housing to employment. Of the three junior ministerial posts, the most significant is that of former barrister Fernandes, who joins the department for exiting the EU that is currently at the centre of the Brexit talks.

Sunak was appointed in the ministry of housing, communities and local government, while Vara, who previously held junior posts in the department of justice and works and pensions, has been placed in the Northern Ireland office.

Four of the Conservative Party’s five Indian-origin MPs are now ministers (Priti Patel is the fifth), which is significant for a party that in May’s own words was seen as the “nasty party”, and one that the Indian community has long opposed, mainly due to its immigration policy.

The party’s turnaround in the community is largely credited to the consistent outreach of David Cameron, first as party leader (since 2005) and then as prime minister (2010 to 2016). Each of the five party MPs attracted more votes in the 2017 election, compared to their percentage in the 2015 election, with Sunak getting nearly 10,000 more votes.

The 2017 election led to the highest number of Indian-origin MPs in British parliamentary history: 12, including seven Labour and five Conservative.

May’s “refresh” of her team added another record of the highest number of ministers from the community.