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The next UK prime minister: which candidate will be best for startups?

From Silicon Valley wannabes to zero experience, we look at how the hopefuls for the top job stack up

By Sifted reporters

Rishi Sunak, former UK Chancellor

If there’s one thing that business leaders like, it is certainty. And that is the one thing that UK politicians have deprived the country of in recent years. After six years of Brexit turmoil and three years of the scandal-ridden premiership of Boris Johnson, Britain is once again on the hunt for a new prime minister.

The UK’s prime minister is elected by a general election normally, but since Johnson resigned the next leader of the Conservative Party will automatically become prime minister. That means members of the Conservative Party will get to pick the next leader of the country, after they vote on the two final candidates chosen by the party’s MPs. The new leader will be announced on September 5 and become prime minister the next day.

So, what are the business credentials of those in the running — and what will each of the candidates mean for UK tech and startups if elected?

Sifted broke down the experience and pledges of all of the leadership hopefuls, and scored each on how supportive of the entrepreneurial ecosystem we think they’ll be. 

This article is being updated as the contest progresses and candidates are knocked out.

UK prime minister race: the candidates

Rishi Sunak

Let’s begin with the three former chancellors on the list — they have, after all, had experience running the UK’s economy. The most notable of the bunch, and the current frontrunner for the top job, is Rishi Sunak. 

Sunak studied at Stanford for a time, where he is said to have been “infected” with Silicon Valley’s tech bro mindset and is often pictured in Zuckerburg-esque hoodies and sliders. After that he worked at Goldman Sachs for three years before joining a hedge fund.

In a 2021 interview with Sifted, while he was chancellor, Sunak spoke of his ambitions to galvanise what he called the UK’s “age of entrepreneurship” through reforms to visa rules, options schemes and research and development credits. 

In his opening address to London Tech Week this year, Sunak described himself as a proud “tech geek” and promised tax breaks for companies doing research and development. He’s regularly spotted at tech events like Founders Forum, his wife Akshata Murthy is an angel investor and he clearly relishes the startup mindset (he told Sifted that he wants the government to do things “that scale with impact”).

In terms of plans to cut corporation tax, Sunak is less bullish than some of his rivals in the race, saying that it’s not yet time and could boost inflation.

Sifted score: 9/10

Sajid Javid — WITHDRAWN

Our second former chancellor, Javid was another heavyweight in the race to Number 10 before he pulled out of the contest on July 12. Like Sunak, he had a career in London’s finance sector having worked at Deutsche Bank for nine years.

As health secretary, Javid laid out a “digital agenda” for Britain’s healthcare system which promised to “harness technological breakthroughs and drive transformation” in the NHS. A year earlier, the opposition Labour Party criticised him for pushing to use AI to shorten healthcare waiting lists while holding stock options in California AI company C3.ai.

When it comes to Big Tech, there are two sides to Javid. In public, he’s been vocal about warning social media giants to crack down on child exploitation. In private, he’s been found to be open to taking undeclared meetings with the likes of Uber.

Javid is likely to be friendly to cutting red tape for UK entrepreneurs. He’s boasted about how he revisits Ayn Rand’s libertarian literary classic The Fountainhead twice a year, and should be able to identify with big-ego founders (he’s known to enjoy being referred to as “The Saj”).

Javid is also one of the most vocal proponents of lower corporation tax in the leadership race, saying he would halt the planned hike from 19% to 25% which is lined up for 2023. He has said he would then gradually decrease the rate by 1p per year, with a target rate of 15%.

Sifted score: 7/10

Nadhim Zahawi — ELIMINATED 

Zahawi was offered the job of chancellor amid the government collapse that led to Boris Johnson’s demise. He accepted the job, then two days later called for his boss to resign.

So while he might not be winning many points for integrity, Zahawi is one of the few leadership contenders who’s actually run a company himself. 

Known to Westminster wonks as “The Boy from Baghdad”, Zahawi fled Iraq with his family when he was nine years old and went on to start a business selling t-shirts and merchandise to supermarkets. Later, he founded UK polling company YouGov and is said to own a property portfolio worth £100m.

Zahawi’s tech credentials are more wobbly: he suggested that AI could be used to mark students’ homework in his role as education secretary in 2021, though that idea didn’t seem to go anywhere.

Since being appointed chancellor it’s been revealed that the UK tax authority (which reports to the chancellor), is investigating Zahawi’s tax affairs, which could cause issues for his leadership bid. 

Zahawi has also pledged to halt the corporation tax rise and keep it at 19%.

Sifted score: 6/10

Liz Truss

A favourite of the true blue Tory membership, Truss hasn’t exactly been subtle in her attempts to channel the Conservative’s spiritual matriarch Margaret Thatcher, being partial to a photo opportunity in a military tank.

Truss began her career in the commercial department at Shell, before a role as economics director at Cable & Wireless (acquired by Vodafone in 2012). Among a number of big ministerial jobs, she served as chief secretary to the Treasury from 2017-19, so she’s no slouch on economic matters.

When it comes to startups and tech, Truss has become a vocal advocate for women entrepreneurs, launching the Taskforce on Women-Led High-Growth Enterprises this year, in partnership with Starling Bank’s Anne Boden.

She’s previously identified Britain’s entrepreneurs as the “number one reason” for the country’s economic successes, and founded the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, a collection of politicians arguing for less employment laws and a more “entrepreneurial economy”.

Truss has also committed to blocking the UK’s planned corporation tax hike. 

Sifted score: 8/10

Jeremy Hunt — ELIMINATED 

Another candidate with decent experience in the private sector, Hunt loves to remind voters about how he started a business before entering politics.

Despite attending one of the UK’s most prestigious private schools and graduating from Oxford with a degree in PPE, Hunt has spoken of his “grind to stay alive” as a young entrepreneur, after leaving a career in management consulting.

But don’t feel too sorry for the former foreign secretary. Hunt was reported to have made £14.5m from the sale of Hotcourses, an educational listings company, which he cofounded in 1996.

Hunt told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast that he wants to use his entrepreneurial experience in government, and make public decision making more agile and less risk averse.

In his previous bid for the Tory leadership, Hunt advertised his ambitions to turn the UK into the world’s next Silicon Valley, proposing an increase to the UK’s tax-free annual investment allowance and scrapping university tuition fees for entrepreneurs.

Of all the candidates, Hunt is the most aggressive on cutting corporation tax, saying he would reduce the rate from 19% to 15% in one go in the autumn.

Sifted score: 9/10

Penny Mordaunt

Next on our list we’ve got a couple of candidates from the military world. Penny Mordaunt has served as a reservist in the British Navy since 2010, and has held a number of ministerial roles under the defence brief, including as secretary of defence for a short time in 2019.

Mordaunt is pretty light on experience when it comes to the world of business, having mostly pursued a career in political communications after graduating from university.

She has publicly spoken about the importance of technology in fighting the climate crisis, and seems supportive of the UK’s cleantech sector.

She has not yet made any public statements on corporation tax, but has pledged to cut fuel duty by 50%.

Sifted score: 4/10

Tom Tugendhat — ELIMINATED

Tugendhat is the only candidate in this leadership race to have not had a government job. As an officer in the British Army, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as a member of parliament, as the chair of foreign affairs select committee.

Before the army, Tugendhat worked as a journalist in the Middle East and founded a public relations agency in Beirut which he says won some “major international clients”. He then worked as a management consultant and energy analyst in the City, according to his website.

He has tweeted about his support for startups as an important part of the UK’s economy, encouraging people to “take chances and grow business”.

He’s also overseen parliamentary reports on the geopolitical and strategic importance of technology, stating that “If the UK is to shape the future, the conversation can’t just be with other states. We need to bring in input from tech companies themselves, both big and small.”

Tugendhat has yet to say anything specific about corporation tax cuts, but has said he supports tax cuts generally, and will back investment in skills and infrastructure as well as tax breaks for research and development.

Sifted score: 5/10

Kemi Badenoch

Badenoch is one of the rising stars of the Tory party, and gained some solid tech experience before her move to politics. She studied computer systems engineering at university, and went on to work as a software engineer at IT consultancy Logica before becoming a systems analyst at the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Badenoch has stated that she plans to cut red tape and push for “smaller government”, but has not laid out specific plans on tax cuts yet, saying she doesn’t want to enter a “bidding war” on who will cut most.

In the past she’s been a big supporter of STEM education, and in 2018 wrote about the importance of attracting top talent to the UK’s tech sector.

Sifted score: 8/10

Suella Braverman — ELIMINATED

The attorney-general has little experience of the world of business, having gone straight into a career in law after studying at Cambridge University.

She did draw the attention of the tech community in May this year, when she suggested that the UK could lawfully launch cyberattacks on other countries as a defence measure.

She’s promised “radical” tax cuts, and a reduction to corporation tax, but hasn’t said by how much.

Sifted score: 2/10

Rehman Chishti — WITHDRAWN

Another former lawyer, Chishti doesn’t have any experience in the private sector. A relative unknown until announcing his leadership ambitions, it’s thought that he is running more to boost his profile than anything else.

Aside from public support for local entrepreneurs in his Kent constituency, Chishti doesn’t seem to have voiced any major support for startups during his political career.

Since announcing his bid for the leadership, he’s spoken of the need to cut taxes, without yet getting into the specifics. He failed to make the initial ballot after not attracting enough backing from MPs.

Sifted score: 1/10

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