Kwasi Kwarteng: baptism of fire for UK's new finance minister


Kwasi Kwarteng has been finance minister for less than a month but is already in the firing line as Britain's economy teeters on the brink following his first policy announcement.

The 47-year-old free-marketeer last week announced sweeping tax cuts, spooking currency and bond markets concerned about his mammoth spending commitments, and earning a rebuke from the IMF.

Kwarteng is a close ally of Liz Truss, who this month won the race to become prime minister following the resignation of scandal-hit Boris Johnson.

She was voted in by Conservative members on a promise to cut taxes, plans that her rival Rishi Sunak, who was finance minister under Johnson, said were a recipe for disaster in the face of spiralling inflation.

Kwarteng's devout belief in liberal economics made him the obvious choice to carry out her plans, despite the warnings.

The pair were also at the forefront of urgent moves to help millions of Britons suffering under the strain of rocketing energy prices that have pushed UK inflation to a 40-year high.

Those spending plans allied with the tax cuts sent sterling plunging to its lowest-ever value against the dollar earlier this week, as critics decried the government's "KamiKwasi" economics.

- 'Committed Thatcherite' -

"There is lots of pressure on Kwasi Kwarteng," said Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics, who described the minister as a "committed Thatcherite" in reference to former leader and free-market proponent Margaret Thatcher.

"He might have started out as believing in a smaller state and a more deregulated economy, but he's living in a world where the public expects almost exactly the opposite," Travers told AFP.

An enthusiastic backer of Brexit, Kwarteng replaced Iraqi-born Nadhim Zahawi, who lasted only two months as chancellor.

Zahawi took over from Sunak, who resigned as finance minister in opposition to Johnson before then losing out to Truss in the contest for 10 Downing Street.

Four years before the 2016 Brexit vote, Kwarteng joined with Truss and other Tory right-wingers to write a free-market manifesto called "Britannia Unchained", which described British workers as "among the worst idlers in the world".

He has enthusiastically endorsed Truss's plans for a "lean state" and to put "money back into people's pockets".

In presenting his controversial budget measures on September 23, Kwarteng declared it "a very good day for the UK, because we've got a growth plan".

But disquiet among Tory MPs is growing ahead of the party's annual conference next week, as opinion polls show voters strongly opposed to the budget plan including its tax cuts for the richest.

- TV swearing -

In his previous role as energy minister, Kwarteng drew the ire of green groups after he said Russia's invasion of Ukraine meant the UK needed further investment in North Sea drilling, to diversify its energy mix.

Britain's first black chancellor of the exchequer, Kwarteng is the son of an economist and lawyer who emigrated to Britain from Ghana.

The London-born Kwarteng won a scholarship to the elite school Eton, before attending both the University of Cambridge and Harvard University.

While at Cambridge, he represented Trinity College on the long-running quiz programme "University Challenge", earning his first national media exposure for uttering an expletive when he got a question wrong.

Kwarteng worked as a financial analyst and newspaper columnist before being elected as a Tory MP in 2010.

A former department colleague, Mark Fletcher, said Kwarteng was "fiercely bright and serious" and also a huge cricket fan.

"If you can explain things to him in a cricket analogy you will always get his attention," he told The Times.

Previously in a relationship with senior Tory MP Amber Rudd, Kwarteng is married to lawyer Harriet Edwards, who gave birth to a daughter last year.


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