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Race to replace Truss: Mordaunt the first to declare

October 21, 2022

Penny Mordaunt has become the first politician to state her intentions to take over from Liz Truss following her brief tenure as British prime minister. But Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson are thought to have more support.

Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak take part in a leadership TV debate on July 15, 2022
This summer, Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak battled in the leadership contest won by Liz TrussImage: Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

The race to replace Liz Truss as Conservative Party leader, and by extension British prime minister, started in earnest on Friday with the first formal declaration of intent. 

The leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, a former defense minister and a candidate in the last Conservative leadership contest in the summer, confirmed that she would be seeking the role. 

"I've been encouraged by support from colleagues who want a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest. I'm running to be the leader of the Conservative Party and your Prime Minister — to unite our country, deliver our pledges and win the next [general election]," Mordaunt wrote on Twitter, adding the hash tag #PM4PM.

However, media organizations trying to track support among Conservative MPs for potential candidates unanimously reported higher preliminary levels of support for two candidates who were yet to declare: previous Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, who lost the last leadership contest runoff against Truss

According to a tally by Reuters news agency, 59 Conservative MPs had so far made public declarations of support for Sunak, 30 for Johnson and 16 for Mordaunt. 

British Conservatives begin search for new leader

How will the leadership race work this time? 

After losing two prime ministers in a matter of months, with Truss set to become Britain's shortest-serving prime minister in history, the Conservative Party is changing its rules on how to elect a new party leader

After Truss won the job in a vote for paid-up party members, despite only enjoying minority support among MPs, the rule tweaks seem designed to increase lawmakers' influence and to limit the role of the membership. 

The drawn-out months of hustings, votes and campaign events looking to gradually narrow the field are being ditched. 

Instead, would-be candidates will need to secure the support of a minimum of 100 Conservative MPs in order to be eligible to stand at all. They must secure this support by 2 p.m. local time on Monday, October 24.

With 357 Conservatives in the lower chamber, the House of Commons, that means a maximum of three candidates will be able to qualify. Two, or even one, might be more likely in the end, as MPs are not obliged to pick somebody. 

If only one candidate clears these hurdles, they would automatically become party leader and prime minister. 

Should more than one candidate qualify, lawmakers would hold a vote designed to trim the field to two, and then another "indicative vote" to show party members what their preferred option would be. 

If no single candidate emerges, the party has said it would then hold an online vote between a final two with a result no later than Friday of next week. 

Rishi Sunak the favorite? Still playing waiting game

Political observers were still treating Rishi Sunak as the most likely Conservative nominee on Friday, even though the politician has been conspicuously silent since losing the leadership battle with Truss. 

Sunak is the former finance minister who predicted during the leadership contest, correctly as it turned out, that Truss' plans for far-reaching tax cuts coupled with extra government borrowing would send financial markets into a panic rather than help combat inflation or high energy prices. 

Ultimately, Truss' resignation can be traced back to the backlash following her "mini-budget" announced after the period of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth II. 

But the 42-year-old and former Goldman Sachs employee has said almost nothing in public since the death of the Queen, at no point undermining Truss, who did not elect to find a position for him in her Cabinet. 

Is Johnson really considering a comeback? 

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was reportedly flying back from the Caribbean on Friday.

He too has said nothing about a possible bid to return to the job he resigned from in the summer.

However, several close allies — Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and Simon Clarke — on Friday said they would prefer Johnson as the new prime minister.

Another mooted contender for the top job, Defense Minister Ben Wallace, ruled himself out of the race and said that while he had not decided who to support, he was "leaning towards" Johnson. 

Johnson was forced to step down in July over a number of ethical and financial scandals, including holding official government parties during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Huge skepticism remains over Johnson's standing within the party. 

One of Johnson's former advisers who asked not to be identified told the Reuters news agency that he was unlikely to reach the target, having alienated dozens of Conservatives during his scandal-ridden tenure.

Other Conservative lawmakers threatened to quit the party if he returned as their leader.

The Conservatives are now polling at their lowest in British history, thanks to months of scandals that culminated in Truss' unfunded plan to cut taxes, which caused a run on the British pound and damaged UK pension funds. She was then forced to execute a series of embarrassing U-turnsbefore standing down.

Calls for fresh elections grow louder

Whoever takes over the party has a mountain to climb to try to restore or renew the reputation of the Conservative Party, which holds a big majority in parliament and need not call an election for another two years.

Research from PeoplePolling for GB News, suggests that 53% of people would vote for the opposition Labour Party if there was an election tomorrow and just 14% would pick the Conservatives.

The opposition Labour Party led calls for immediate nationwide polls, saying the Conservatives no longer had a public mandate.

"This is not just a soap opera at the top of the Tory party — it's doing huge damage to the reputation of our country," Labour leader Keir Starmer said. "We must have a chance at a fresh start. We need a general election — now.''

msh, mm/wd (AFP, AP, Reuters)