Eight Conservatives will fight it out to succeed Boris Johnson as party leader and British prime minister after winning enough nominations from their colleagues to go through to the first round of voting on Wednesday.
Only two hopefuls failed to win the 20 necessary nominations, leaving a wide field of candidates seeking to win the backing of the party with promises of tax cuts, honesty and serious government, in a contrast to Johnson who was forced to announce he would resign after a series of scandals.
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is the bookmakers’ favourite, and among those he will be taking on are his successor Nadhim Zahawi and Foreign Minister Liz Truss in what is becoming an increasingly testy and divisive contest.
As the contest heated up, rival campaigns stepped up private criticism of each other and pointed to either financial or other questions hanging over their opponents.
Finance minister talks taxes, inflation
The next British leader faces a daunting in-tray while support for the Conservatives is also falling, polls show.
Britain’s economy is facing rocketing inflation, high debt and low growth, as people grapple with the tightest squeeze on their finances in decades, all set against a backdrop of an energy crunch exacerbated by the war in Ukraine which has sent fuel prices soaring.
Sunak kicked off his campaign by portraying himself as the serious candidate, promising “grown up” honesty “not fairy tales,” seeking to contrast himself with the extensive tax cuts pledged by most of the other candidates.
“It is not credible to promise lots more spending and lower taxes,” Sunak said, saying tax cuts could only come after soaring inflation was tackled.
As finance minister, Sunak set Britain on course to have its biggest tax burden since the 1950s, and most of the other hopefuls have turned their fire on him by saying they would oversee cuts immediately.
The former finance minister has the widest support among colleagues who have publicly expressed their view.
Penny Mordaunt, a junior trade minister who is also heavily tipped, topped a poll of Conservative members on Monday and she too has tried to strike a more measured tone on tax, saying that while she would cut taxes: “I will pioneer sound money.”
“I am a small state, low tax conservative, but I also believe we need to use the levers of government to support jobs and livelihoods through difficult economic situations,” she wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Other candidates include Attorney General Suella Braverman, 42, who was heavily criticized by lawyers after the government sought to break international law over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.
Braverman campaigned to leave the EU and served as a junior minister in the Brexit department under former prime minister Theresa May, but resigned in protest at her proposed Brexit deal, saying it did not go far enough in breaking ties with the bloc.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, 55, is running for the leadership again after finishing second to Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest to replace May.
Over the last two years, Hunt has used his experience as a former health secretary to chair parliament’s health select committee and has not been tarnished by having served in the current government. Hunt said he voted to oust Johnson in a confidence vote last month that the prime minister narrowly won.
Hunt has pledged tax cuts, including a cut to corporation tax to 15 per cent. He says he favours cuts for businesses because they could help spur economic growth, while tax cuts for consumers might be inflationary.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, and Kemi Badenoch, a former junior minister who is scooping up support on the right wing of the party, were among other candidates to enter the first round of the contest.
Foreign Secretary Truss received the backing on Tuesday of two ministers closest to Johnson — Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg — who have both been critical of Sunak.
Government blocked confidence vote, Labour Party says
The 1922 Committee of Conservative members of parliament that is organizing the contest says the field will soon be whittled down with repeated votes in the next few weeks, with the final two then selected by the fewer than 200,000 party members by July 21.
The winner, and Britain’s new prime minister, will be announced on Sept. 5.
Meanwhile the opposition Labour Party said the government had blocked its attempt to call a confidence vote in Johnson on Wednesday to force him from office immediately.
The government said that it would allow Labour to call a confidence vote if the wording of the motion was changed to remove reference to Johnson.