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Uh-oh for U.K.'s new P.M.

Episode Summary

Rishi Sunak has made history as the first nonwhite person to become prime minister of the United Kingdom. His reward? A country, party and people in chaos.

Episode Notes

Rishi Sunak made history last month as the first nonwhite person to become prime minister of the United Kingdom. But he inherits a country, a party and people in chaos. Sunak is the third prime minister in seven weeks for the U.K, as it grapples with economic problems and an identity crisis. Can a new face stop the decline?

Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times foreign correspondent Jaweed Kaleem

More reading:

Rishi Sunak to be Britain’s new prime minister, the first person of color in the role

With another prime minister gone, what’s next for an already diminished Britain?

It’s a good time to be an American in Britain, as the pound declines in value

Episode Transcription

Clip: Mr. Speaker, the only mandate she's ever had is from members opposite. It was a mandate built on fantasy economics, and it ended in disaster.

Gustavo Arellano: The past few months have been rough for the United Kingdom.

Clip: The country's got nothing to show for it except the destruction of the economy and the implosion of the Tory party

Gustavo Arellano: Now the U.K. is looking for a reset. And what a historic reset they’re getting.

Clip: Good morning. I have just been to Buckingham Palace and accepted His Majesty the King's invitation to form a government in his name.

Gustavo Arellano: Rishi Sunak is the country’s third prime minister in seven weeks … but the first ever nonwhite prime minister.

Clip: It is only right to explain why I'm standing here as your new prime minister.

Gustavo Arellano: But when Sunak took office last week he had a dire warning.

Clip: Right now our country is facing a profound economic crisis. The aftermath of COVID—

Gustavo Arellano: In other words, he has a lot of work to do.

I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to The Times Essential News from the L.A. Times. 

It’s Friday, November 4, 2022. 

Today we leave the midterms in the United States for the problems facing the new British prime minister, his plans to fix them and why you should care. 

Gustavo Arellano: Joining me from London is my L.A. Times colleague and foreign correspondent Jaweed Kaleem. Jaweed, welcome to The Times.

Jaweed Kaleem: Thank you for having me.

Gustavo Arellano: OK, three prime ministers in seven weeks. Man, Britain is sounding like a Gabriel García Márquez novel. So how did the United Kingdom get to this point?

Jaweed Kaleem: It’s at once a long story and a very short one. 

Gustavo Arellano: It sounds like a Márquez novel.

Jaweed Kaleem: So it began during COVID, but really early this year, when Boris Johnson, now, the former, former prime minister, and his Cabinet, was exposed for being part of these wine and cheese soirees parties.

AP: Johnson has recently struggled to turn the pages on months of ethics scandals, most notably over rule-breaking parties in government buildings during coronavirus lockdowns

Jaweed Kaleem: And their lockdowns were a lot worse than ours. They were very strict. so they were exposed for being hypocritical. 

Boris Johnson: I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch.

Jaweed Kaleem: Not only that, but then also Boris Johnson was found out to be very kind of dodgy and vague and had botched responses over whether he knew about a certain official who got a high-up job from him, about whether he was sexually harassing people. So there were different things that added up and basically his entire Cabinet – they resigned. 

AP: He's inflicted lies, fraud and chaos in the country.

Jaweed Kaleem: So he's backed into a corner. He has to leave.

Boris Johnson: It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister.

Jaweed Kaleem: Rthat sets up a contest about who will replace him. And there's a whole group of people, but there's two who are left: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Liz Truss was the former foreign secretary – the secretary of State, basically – perhaps best known recently for dealing with Russia and the war in Ukraine. And, uh, Rishi Sunak was opposing her. He was the finance minister under Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss easily won.

Liz Truss: It's an honor to be elected as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Jaweed Kaleem: She had more experience in politics. She had a higher, more global position in the U.K. governments. And she also was just a more politically supported figure, so to speak. 

Liz Truss: I'd like to thank the party chairman and the Conservative Party for organizing one of the longest job interviews in history. Thank you very much.

Jaweed Kaleem: So she wins this contest to be the prime minister in September. But then she just does everything she can in her power to make things worse for her and the country, really.

Gustavo Arellano: How'd she do that?

Truss as prime minister 1: I will deliver a bold plan to cut taxes and grow our economy.

Jaweed Kaleem: She campaigns on tax cuts, which is not unusual anywhere, but she has no plan to make up for the tax cuts. So she says, let's cut taxes by basically $50 billion. But she doesn’t have any answer for how to make up that money. And it sent the markets crashing, the pound crashing.

AP: The Bank of England has taken emergency action to stabilize British financial markets after the government spooked investors with a program of unfunded tax cuts.

Jaweed Kaleem: So she, like her predecessor, was backed into a corner and had to resign.

Liz Truss: Given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party.

Jaweed Kaleem: Which clears the way for Rishi Sunak last week to become prime minister, the guy who ran against her, seven weeks after losing. Now he is prime minister. 

Gustavo Arellano: What Sunak’s story?

Jaweed Kaleem: He's a relative novice in politics and in public office. He's a conservative from Richmond in North Yorkshire, a rural, wealthy, white district in the north of England. He came into office in 2015, so not that long ago, seven years ago, and his first major role in national politics, or the way folks came to know him, was that during COVID he was the finance minister under Boris Johnson. And Just like in the U.S., where people were unemployed, offices were closed, same thing there in the U.K. They had a national program where companies were supported by the government to essentially shut down and still get paychecks for their workers, and Rishi Sunak was kind of the face of this program. He's also the first person of color to be prime minister, so it's a monumental moment in many ways, just ‘cause of the timeline, how quick it happened, the chaos in the government, as well as just being a first in terms of your race.

Gustavo: So what’s Sunak’s plan to handle the economic situation that Liz Truss left him in?

Jaweed Kaleem: We don't exactly know, actually. 

Gustavo Arellano: Huh.

Jaweed Kaleem: We're not totally sure. He's recognized that things are bad. Inflation is, you know, through the roof. It's more than 10% and has not been that high in 40 years. People's housing costs are going up, food prices are going up. People can't afford to eat basic staples at this point. Pubs, national institution pubs, you know, there's thousands of pubs. They serve drinks and food and fish and chips and so on and so forth. They're the one thing you can expect to stay the same. They're closing …. So he said the country is in a profound economic crisis. And for now what he's doing is basically not causing any more havoc.

Rishi Sunak: The government I lead will not leave the next generation, your children and grandchildren, with a debt to settle that we were too weak to pay ourselves.

Jaweed Kaleem: So the next few weeks, Sunak has to have his government put forth a budget, which will lay out his plans for what's next for the country. 

Rishi Sunak: I will unite our country, not with words but with action.

Jaweed Kaleem: There's a lot of issues out there that he's facing and hoping to, I imagine, try to solve some of them.

Gustavo Arellano: Coming up after the break, how Rishi Sunak’s problems extend beyond the economy. 

Gustavo Arellano: Jaweed, the economic stuff that's happening in the U.K., it's a big issue, obviously, but there's also the matter of Rishi's party, the Conservatives. Who are they?

Jaweed Kaleem: So the Conservatives, they're also called the Tories, they’ve been in power for 12 years, since 2010 – multiple prime ministers, multiple representatives. 

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, I always thought the Conservatives and Tories were two completely different parties. This is why you listen to the podcast.

Jaweed Kaleem: Right, well, it's like saying the GOP and Republicans, they're the same thing. 

Newsreel: Gates are now opening … 

Jaweed Kaleem: So the conservatives they've been in power since 2010. 

Newsreel: We can see the new prime minister, David Cameron …

Jaweed Kaleem: In 2019, they had this humongous election victory, the biggest victory since 1987

Boris Johsnon: Good morning everybody! Well, we did it! We did it! We pulled it off, didn’t we?

Jaweed Kaleem: They won so many seats in government. 

Newsreel: The party won an 80-seat Commons majority, its biggest since 1987. 

Boris Johnson: Glorious! Glorious!

Jaweed Kaleem: And it was under Boris Johnson. He is, and was this, you know, renegade, populist kind of figure, who was a great campaigner. He got people really behind him. 

Boris Johnson: I of course want to congratulate absolutely everyone involved in securing the biggest Conservative majority since the 1980s.  

Jaweed Kaleem: But since then their popularity has really come crashing down. A bit under Boris Johnson for sure, but especially under Liz Truss. You know, it really comes down to your bills, comes down to whether you can afford to pay for your housing, how your retirement account is doing, how your mortgage is doing, these basic things. And the Conservatives now are seen in polls as a party that really has not helped the people. 

Gustavo Arellano: I don't get this, though. You say that the Conservatives have had three prime ministers in less than two months, but I don't remember hearing about any elections for  prime minister in the U.K.

Jaweed Kaleem: No. So it's, it's a different system than the U.S. In the U.S., we elect our congresspeople, we elect senators, we elect the president every four years. In the U.K., it's a parliamentary system. Whichever party is in the majority – and it's the Conservatives; it's been them for a long time – they get to choose among their elected people who will be the prime minister, who will be their party leader, and thus the prime minister. And when resignations happen, they get to choose somebody else. So they haven't had an election that regular, everyday people have voted in since 2019, and they don't have one scheduled until 2025.

Gustavo Arellano: Wow. So is there, maybe, given all the chaos, the possibilities of an earlier general election? How would that happen?

Jaweed Kaleem: You know, I actually was curious about that too. I spoke to a professor, Victoria Honeyman at University of Leeds,

Jaweed Kaleem: Hello. It's me. 

Victoria Honeyman: Hello. 

Jaweed Kaleem: Hello.

Victoria Honeyman: Hi! 

Jaweed Kaleem: Sorry, that's my dog.

Jaweed Kaleem: And she said she doesn't see them doing that.

Victoria Honeyman: All of the polling suggests that if they were to call a general election today, even with Sunak in Downing Street, the expectation would still be that Labor would win that general election and would win it relatively easily. 

Jaweed Kaleem: So if there was an election today, a general election, the Labor Party, the more liberal party, would absolutely crush their competition and win.

Victoria Honeyman: There have been a number of upsets, but I don't think that the Conservative Party's gonna want to take a chance on that. They're going to cling to power, either until they have no choice but to call a general election, or if they feel at some point in the next couple of years that things are going so fantastically well that they really do think that they've got a fighting chance of, of winning, then I think that they will go for it.

Gustavo Arellano: So what can we see instead?

Jaweed Kaleem: So, Sunak is jockeying now to keep his party together, and get ready for the best possible general election in the U.K.

Jaweed Kaleem: So, Victoria told me that, unlike in the U.S., U.K. politics don't revolve so much around a single person, a personality, to get the party together. Boris Johnson did some of that, and he had some of that power or charm to him. and it was sometimes compared to Trump, but really it's not the same.

Victoria Honeyman: It's interesting, this kind of personality politics, because obviously  presidential systems lend themselves to personality politics. Ultimately, you go into a voting booth and you vote for somebody, a particular individual. We don't have that in this country,

Jaweed Kaleem: There's really no Trump-like figure in the U.K. for Conservatives like there is for Republicans in the U.S., which means that Rishi Sunak has to deal with a lot of factions in his party.

Victoria Honeyman: And at the moment, the Conservative Party has lots of different factions in it. So there's the personality ones. You've got the people who backed Johnson versus the people who backed Rishi Sunak. 

Jaweed Kaleem:. Then there are people who divide themselves on policy in the Conservative Party.

Victoria Honeyman: You've got those on the right of the party; they label themselves up as being kind of libertarians. They want low taxation, low government intervention, high growth. Then on the other side of the party, you've got the One Nation conservatives, who argue that actually you need to be able to support people within society.

Jaweed Kaleem: You know, in the U.K. there's a big divide between London and the rest of the country. Basically, uh, London is the center and the rest is sometimes forgotten, and you have issues on, joblessness and manufacturing and all kinds of things going on.

Victoria Honeyman: So you've got all of these different tensions in the party pulling in one way or another, demanding different things. And you can see how it's so hard for anybody, whoever it may be, who's at the center of that, to determine where they should be spending money, what policies they should be focusing on, how they should be playing all of these different groups in order to get them to unite together.

Jaweed Kaleem: So, unity is a big issue in the Conservative Party. But also, like I said, there's an election that's gonna be coming up very fast and Rishi Sunak has to unite his party and get voters excited. 

Gustavo Arellano: What is he facing with the public? How do people in the United Kingdom feel about all this turmoil?

Jaweed Kaleem: So, I actually went out and asked them.

Ambi: Sign our petition, fight the rising cost of living!

Jaweed Kaleem: I'm here in Brick Lane in London. So this is a, a historically South Asian business, uh, kind of neighborhood, mostly Bangladeshi.

Ambi sound inaudible 

Jaweed Kaleem: I went around London, on a weekend – it was a very warm weekend. People were out and about everywhere. Now keep in mind it's London, so London's a lot more liberal than much more of U.K. I spoke to a guy named, uh, Darragh.

Darragh: Yeah, yeah, yeah, my name’s Darragh.

Jaweed Kaleem: He's from Ireland, from Dublin, but has lived in London for a while.

Darragh: And I'm a, yeah, full-time organizer with International Socialist Alternative.

Jaweed Kaleem: And he talked about how all this drama is just adding on top of all the pain already around, just the basic needs of living that drag people down.

Darragh: You know, if you even go to the shop and stuff, you'll feel food prices going up. You have energy bills skyrocketing, You also have a horrendous housing crisis.

Jaweed Kaleem: He mentioned how he's seen all these strikes happening in the U.K., more than usual — transit strikes, train strikes, bus strikes, everything. And he thought that was a sign of how people are more fed up.

Darragh: And all of that, I think, is contributing to a generalized sense of, of discontent and anger at the status quo, that this can't go on. But I also think that …

Jaweed Kaleem: I also spoke to a 17-year-old from the southeast of London named Zaina.

Zainab: I'm 17, I'm turning 8 next year, so I'm in sixth form. However…

Jaweed Kaleem: She even herself as somebody who’s about to graduate high school and going to college said that it felt like an unstable time to her.

Zainab: So, like, when it comes to politics, I've never really looked at it as much, but I feel as if the country's getting down as in like, we don't really know what we want in a sense, as in, you know, our former prime minister just dropped out. Now we've got a new prime minister. Hopefully he does a good job for United Kingdom. Do you get what I'm saying? That’s about it. 

Jaweed Kaleem: She had lived through lockdowns during COVID and thought things were opening up in her country and kind of was excited, and now sees that things are still running amok a bit. 

Jaweed Kaleem: There's a general uncertainty about how British people feel about their place in the world. The politics are, clearly, very messy, as you know, objectively speaking. The economy is shaky. The queen, this one figure who has been … 

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah.

Jaweed Kaleem: … the stable figure has died. So there's so much happening in this country, where it just kind of throws into question what the identity of the place is.

Gustavo Arellano: More, after the break.

Gustavo Arellano: Jaweed, you were telling us that a lot of British people feel like their country is facing an identity crisis. Wasn’t that one of the main factors behind Britain’s decision to leave the European Union a few years ago? That whole Brexit thing?

Jaweed Kaleem: Yeah, Brexit, or British exit, however you want to define it. It was a campaign to quote, take back control of the country. And that meant two things. One, it meant taking back control of your economy or your trade, because the U.K. was part of the European Union, a block of countries that sided together on their legal rules, their trade rules, so on and so forth, but also taking back Britain. There was a xenophobic aspect to it too. It was about taking back your country from people who are seeking asylum and trying to immigrate, and this had been building for a long time. The U.K. has always been kind of skeptical about the EU for a long time. Brexit was building under David Cameron. So he's several prime ministers ago, but not that long ago in years. And he's a Conservative as well. So, people wanted to leave the EU, there was a vote, and the vote decided to leave. That was the winning vote, let's leave the EU. And that set off this whole series of events, affecting, you know, everything in the country. There's not any clear analogy in the U.S., but you know, say, we've always had this movement  in California, the Bear Republic, to leave the U.S., right? Be your own nation or such. And California could do it in some ways, ‘cause it has a lot of money and economy and people. But it'd be very complicated. There's a lot of laws, a lot of transportation, there's not a border, to get to California from other states at least. So in the U.K., they've had to figure out all of that. 

Gustavo Arellano: What's interesting to me about Brexit was there was that really big  anti-immigrant sentiment, and it wasn't just any specific immigrants, it really seemed like immigrants of color. But now the head though, of the Conservative Party, the prime minister of the United Kingdom — he’s a person of color.

Jaweed Kaleem: Yeah, it's interesting, right? It's again like a contrast to the U.S., where the more diverse party up at the top levels are the Democrats. In the U.K., when you see the first person of color as prime minister, it's the Conservative Party. And it's not just by accident.

Jaweed Kaleem: So conservatives in the U.K., they actually made a point many years ago to hand-pick conservative people of color who were like rising stars. David Cameron, the, four prime ministers, or maybe five – several prime minister ministers ago – he had what he called an A-list of women and people of color who he wanted to, kind of foster to rise up in governments.

Jaweed Kaleem: But it doesn't mean, you know, just because you're a person of color doesn't mean you have very pro-immigrant kinds of views. You know, one of the top figures around how to manage the borders in the U.K. is Suella Braverman, she's the home secretary, which is the part of government that oversees the borders. And one of her big things has been how to deal with asylum seekers and migrants coming across the English Channel. And what they do right now is they send them to Rwanda for processing. That's not a nearby country. That's a faraway place. So that's one example. And she's a person of color also. So while it's one thing to have diverse leadership, that doesn't translate to more pro-immigrant policies per se. And when I talked to Victoria Honeyman, she told me that it's not just a person's race that is important to consider. It's also their class.

Victoria Honeyman: There is an argument that actually the thing that we need to look at the Conservative Party, after we have congratulated them on their diversity, is the idea of class within that.

Jaweed Kaleem: So Rishi Sunak, as well as, you know, a wide list of prime ministers over the last months and years and Cabinet ministers, they've all gone to Oxford. 

Victoria Honeyman: If you look at, for example, the former chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Oxford graduate. Liz Truss, Oxford graduate. Rishi Sunak, Oxford graduate, you begin to see a certain pattern of behavior

Jaweed Kaleem: Rishi Sunak grew up in Southampton in the U.K., a few hours southwest of London. He was a son of immigrants from East Africa who are of Indian heritage. They were middle to upper-middle class. They were not lower class at all. He went to Stanford, he went to Oxford. He worked for Goldman Sachs. He worked for various finance groups and hedge funds. His wife comes from a more wealthy background than him. She is the daughter of one of India's richest people, the founder of a company called Infosys, a tech company.

Victoria Honeyman: Rishi Sunak and his wife are estimated to be worth about 700 million pounds, roughly. The question is, would Rishi Sunak — privately educated at Winchester, Oxford graduate — and his daughter-of-a-billionaire wife be able to understand what it's like to have to rely on the NHS for your operation or to have to use a food bank because your salary isn't enough to pay for all the things that you need in your life. 

Jaweed Kaleem: So he's kind of seen as a guy who's smart, conservative and very distanced from society, regular society. There was an example of him campaigning recently over the summer and he was shown going into like a gas station to pump some gas and, like, buy a coffee or an iced tea or something. And he didn't understand how to pay,

Gustavo Arellano: Oh, no!

Jaweed Kaleem: Yes, so he wasn't sure how to use his card or what to do, which, you know, says he hasn't done that much in his life. On top of that, he's a supporter of Brexit. So, yes, he's a person of color, but he also supports these policies and this movement.

Gustavo Arellano: So how much of the fallout from Brexit does Sunak have to deal with? 

Jaweed Kaleem: Well, I asked Victoria, and there's a lot of issues. Brexit is far from over, but there's two that are really looming. So one is Northern Ireland. You know, there's Ireland, which is a separate country, which is part of the European Union, and right above it is Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. And that whole difference has been part of a long conflict – one that was very violent over the years, over the decades. But there's a precarious peace there now. The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is not just, as Victoria said, a straight border. 

Victoria Honeyman: The Northern Irish border can weave in and out. You can be on a road and you can go from Ireland to Northern Ireland half a dozen times because the road weaves in and out. So it's not a nice straight border.

Jaweed Kaleem: There's all these issues around trade and exchanging goods – food, potatoes, everything. She described it as kind of a tinderbox where it's peaceful, but just if you poke it too much, there's a risk of, really, badly affecting the peace there. 

Victoria Honeyman: It's like spinning plates, but instead of spinning plates, you are spinning Ming vases that at any moment could fracture, could crack. That's the kind of level of delicacy that is required.

Jaweed Kaleem: The other issue is that Liz Truss' government put forward a law that would scrap all EU laws by 2023. That's, you know, thousands of laws and legislation. And you have to replace those with something. You can't just get rid of them. That's also looming and what to do with that, you know, continuation of separating from the European Union. There's a lot going on.

Victoria Honeyman:  It's like the worst divorce in the world where you try and figure out who owns which CDs, when in actual fact you bought them together and therefore nobody really owns them. You try and kind of pull your lives apart. So you've got all of those iIntractable, difficult, really complicated political issues to deal with. But at the heart of it is still the same old question about Brexit, which is what does Britain want to be? What do the British people want to be? What do they want the United Kingdom to look like in the 21st century?

Gustavo Arellano: Finally, Jaweed, we're about to have an election here in the United States, and one interesting thing that you notice, if you, you know, pay attention to bigger world trends, is that the United States and United Kingdom tend to follow each other politically. So when Reagan was getting power, he was just following Margaret Thatcher's footsteps back in the early 1980s, and they both did the same economic austerity thing, or no one thought Brexit was ever gonna happen, just like no one ever thought that Donald Trump would ever become president. So are there any lessons from Sunak and just everything that the Tories are going through, their whole recent debacle, for us here before the midterms happen?

Jaweed Kaleem: Yeah, it may seem like the U.K. is this kind of a small country far away that they share our language and speak with a different accent and, you know, eat fish and chips and so on and so forth.

Gustavo Arellano: They're eating more tacos now I hear in the United Kingdom.

Jaweed Kaleem: Oh, they're not, they're not so good; I've tried them. But, yes, it might seem like a faraway place. But Victoria, what she told me was that she wouldn't say it's really the U.S. following the U.K. or the U.K. following the U.S. She would say it's these major players in the country who are in the same sort of economic and political place and dealing with the same changes in their country and figuring out how to respond to it. 

Victoria Honeyman: I think it's more that countries face the same types of circumstances at the same types of time, and they can very often look at the same types of solutions.

Jaweed Kaleem: And one thing that I thought was really smart that Victoria said was that the U.K. and the U.S. have faced this issue of the more liberal party struggling to depict itself as something more than just the opposition. So in the U.K., the Labor Party will say we're not the Conservatives, we will give you leadership and a prime minister and not cause havoc. In the U.S., there were a lot of voters and Democrats who said, well, you know, Joe Biden is not Donald Trump. There's more things to say about him, but that alone should be enough for you to vote for us. Victoria said that's not a strategy, that's not a long-term strategy.

Victoria Honeyman: They need to try and kind of attract voters to them, rather than just collect the disaffected. Because there's only so long that Joe Biden cannot be Donald Trump. There's only so long that Labor cannot be Conservative, because then it, your victory, becomes based upon what the other guy's doing.

Jaweed Kaleem: I think that brings us to where we are right now with the elections looming.

Gustavo Arellano: So you think Sunak lasts? 

Jaweed Kaleem: So if I was to judge based upon history of the last few months, the answer is no. But, but, I think time will tell, really. I think he has his work cut for him. He's had more than a week in office, so that's one seventh-plus of his predecessor's time, and he has not caused any major havoc quite yet.

Gustavo Arellano: We will see what happens. Jaweed, thank you so much for this conversation.

Jaweed Kaleem: Thank you.

Gustavo Arellano: And that's it for this episode of The Times Essential News from the L.A. Times. Kasia Brousallian and Ashlea Brown were the jefas on this episode. Mike Heflin mixed and mastered it, and Jazmin Augilera edited it. 

Our show's produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Nicolas Perez and Roberto Reyes.

Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Monday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.