Former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak was the strong favorite Monday to become Britain’s next prime minister — within days or even hours — as the governing Conservative Party sought stability at a time of immense economic challenges and after months of chaos that consumed the past two leaders.
Sunak’s position strengthened after former leader Boris Johnson dropped out of the Conservative Party leadership contest. The party is choosing Britain’s third prime minister this year following Liz Truss’ resignation after a turbulent 45-day term.
Sunak lost out to Truss in the last Conservative election, but his party and the country now appear eager for a safe pair of hands to tackle soaring energy and food prices and a looming recession. The politician steered the economy through the coronavirus pandemic, winning praise for his financial support for laid-off workers and shuttered businesses.
He has promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability” if he forms a government — a nod to the growing to desire for a leader who can tackle the country’s problems.
The 42-year-old is the only candidate with confirmed support from more than 100 lawmakers, the number needed to run in the election, with his backers claiming he has been endorsed by more than half the 357 Conservative lawmakers in Parliament. House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt has far fewer public expressions of support, but is aiming to reach the threshold by the time nominations close Monday afternoon.
If Sunak alone clears the barrier, he will automatically become the Conservative Party leader and will be asked by King Charles III to form a government. He would become the prime minister in a handover of power from Truss later Monday or on Tuesday.
If both make the ballot, the Conservative lawmakers will hold an indicative vote to show their preference. If neither subsequently drops out, the choice will then go to the 172,000 party members around the country, with a result announced Friday.
Mordaunt will come under intense pressure to step aside and not force a membership vote if Sunak is the strong favorite among lawmakers.
Home Secretary Grant Shapps, a Sunak supporter, said the former Treasury chief did not think he had the contest “in the bag.”
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“He’s speaking to colleagues this morning, he’s working very hard to attract those supporters who were perhaps with Boris Johnson previously,” Shapps said. “But, look, I’ll leave it to Penny, she’s a terrific colleague. Let’s see what happens.”
Sunak, who was Treasury chief from 2020 until this summer, quit in July in protest at Johnson’s leadership.
Johnson dramatically quit the race on Sunday night, ending a short-lived, high-profile attempt to return to the prime minister’s job he was ousted from little more than three months ago amid ethics scandals.
Johnson spent the weekend trying to gain support from fellow Conservative lawmakers after flying back from a Caribbean vacation. Late Sunday he said he had amassed the backing of 102 colleagues. But he was far behind Sunak in support, and said he had concluded that “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in Parliament.”
The prospect of a return by Johnson had thrown the already divided Conservative Party into further turmoil. He led the party to a thumping election victory in 2019, but his premiership was clouded by scandals over money and ethics that eventually became too much for the party to bear.
In his Sunday statement, Johnson insisted he was “well placed to deliver a Conservative victory” in the next national election, due by 2024. And he said that he likely would have won a ballot of Conservative Party members against either of his rivals.
“But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do,” he said.
He hinted he might be back, however, saying: “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”
Truss quit Thursday after a turbulent 45 days in office, conceding that she could not deliver on her botched tax-cutting economic package, which she was forced to abandon after it sparked fury within her party and weeks of turmoil in financial markets.
The Conservative Party turmoil is fueling demands for a national election. Under Britain’s parliamentary system, there does not need to be one until the end of 2024, though the government has the power to call one sooner.
Currently that looks unlikely. Opinion polls say an election would spell disaster for the Conservatives, with the left-of-center Labour Party winning a large majority.