Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson vie to be U.K. prime minister


LONDON — After a whirlwind two months packed with drama and crisis, Britain finds itself right back where it was before with some of the same faces competing to become the third prime minister in just eight weeks.

Supporters for the three presumed front-runners — Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and, yes, Boris Johnson — were out of the blocks early on Friday, setting out their pitches for why their person should get the keys to 10 Downing Street, the prime ministerial residence.

Could Boris Johnson stage an extraordinary political comeback? What about Rishi Sunak, the bookies’ favorite who fell to Liz Truss in the last contest? Or Penny Mordaunt, who is not widely known but polls well with the Conservative Party members? Or might someone else emerge as the leading hopeful to become the next Conservative Party leader?

The Friday front pages of Britain’s famously boisterous tabloids already had Truss firmly in their rear view mirrors as they focused on “Boris v Rishi: Fight for the soul of the Tories,” in the words of the Daily Mail. The Telegraph, the Sun and the Daily Express all put on Johnson for their front page, while the left-leaning Mirror just called for a general election “now” in enormous print.

It has been less than 24 hours since Truss said that she was stepping down as leader, giving her the unenviable title of shortest-serving prime minister ever. The party is working on an astonishingly short time frame and plans to have their contest wrapped up in a week.

No one has officially declared they are running but backers for the top three — and the new rules ensure there cannot be more than three — have started declaring their support.

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Rishi Sunak is the bookies’ favorite. The runner-up in the last leadership contest has been notably quiet himself, but his “Ready for Rishi” team has started cranking into gear. They point out that during the last contest his candidacy received the most support from his colleagues and say that many of his economic ideas turned out to be prescient.

His critics contend that he betrayed Johnson and blame him for helping to bring that era to an end. But according to the Daily Telegraph, he has more public declarations of support than any other candidate.

“Rishi’s competence, compassion, economic foresight and his leadership skills means he is the candidate to unite our Party. Rishi’s charisma & wider appeal in the country means he is best placed to rebuild support for our Party,” wrote Nick Gibb, a Conservative Party lawmaker.

Johnson’s supporters want him to return from his plow — like the classical-era hero Cincinnatus brought back to deal with a crisis, whom Johnson referred to in his resignation speech.

Rumors are swirling that Johnson, who was the 55th British prime minister, might also want to be its 57th British prime minister. Those in the “Bring Back Boris” camp argue that Johnson is the only candidate who has a “mandate” to lead. In 2019, Johnson helped his party to a whopping great win in the general election. It is not certain if anyone else could galvanize the population to the same extent — or if Johnson himself even still can.

“One person was elected by the British public with a manifesto and a mandate until January ‘25. If Liz Truss is no longer PM there can be no coronation of previously failed candidates. MPs must demand return of @BorisJohnson — if not it has to be leadership election or a GE,” or general election, tweeted Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist.

Johnson is the top pick among the 170,000 Conservative Party members. But there is also widespread antipathy in the broader public. His time in office was marked by scandal after scandal and voters and his own colleagues were upset by his refusal to accept accountability. He was the first serving prime minister ever to be fined by the police.

Johnson is also still under investigation by the House of Commons for misleading lawmakers over the infamous Downing Street parties and he could still be potentially suspended from Parliament.

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It was under his leadership that the Conservatives, at the start of the year, started slipping behind the opposition Labour Party in the polls for the first time in years. Johnson is still under investigation for lying to Parliament. It wasn’t so long ago that 41 percent of his own colleagues said that they didn’t have confidence in Johnson’s leadership.

It would surprise few people if he officially declared he was running. After all, there was that reference to Cincinnatus in his final speech and Johnson seems to be ready to leave the farm again for his country.

The third potential successor that many see is Penny Mordaunt, who is seeking to become a household name but may have a ways to go — in one survey, most respondents could not name her when shown her photo. But her “PM4PM” supporters are seeking to change that, pointing out that she polls better with the all-important Conservative Party members than Sunak.

Mordaunt’s visibility received a big boost in the waning days of Truss’s tenure when she stood in for the prime minister in Parliament following the dismantling of the economic program and ably handled the hostile questions. Many at the time speculated it could be a dry run for her own bid for the top job since it showcased her parliamentary sparring skills.

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The candidates don’t have much time to drum up support. The race has been truncated so it will happen quickly. Britain could have a new prime minister as early as Monday.

The rules were changed Thursday so that the country can replace Truss quickly. Candidates must get the backing of at least 100 Conservative colleagues to advance in the race. It’s possible that, given the high bar, only one candidate will be put forward by Monday at 2 p.m., which is when the nominations close.

If there is more than one, the hopefuls will be whittled down before the final two are put forward to the 170,000 members of the Conservative Party. Officials have said that the contest will be wrapped up by Oct. 28 at the very latest.

Some have argued that this method is undemocratic. The new leader will either be selected by a group of about 350 Conservative lawmakers, or, if it does go to the membership, then 170,000 people — hardly the same as an election for the entire country.

“By the end of October, the UK will have had three prime ministers in eight weeks, two of whom have come to power without a general election … ” the Financial Times wrote in an editorial. “The prospect of yet another Conservative prime minister chosen without a general election ignores not only the UK’s growing democratic deficit but also the lack of competence displayed by its woeful government.”

But despite growing calls for a general election, that seems highly unlikely. The Conservative Party is not expected to push for something that, with the current polling, would probably result in its annihilation.

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