- Mordaunt becomes the first to announce his intent to run
- Candidates must reach the target of 100 nominations
- Sunak is a bookmaker’s favourite
- The winner will be the fifth British Prime Minister in six years
LONDON (Reuters) – Boris Johnson is gaining momentum in his audacious bid to return as Britain’s prime minister, with colleagues deeply divided over a possible return and some warning it could plunge the country into new chaos.
Former Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt has become the first candidate to formally announce his intention to run as the next leader of the Conservative Party, but Johnson and Rishi Sunak, who was his finance minister, led potential contenders as the candidates attracted support ahead of next week’s vote.
With the Conservatives securing a large majority in Parliament and able to ignore calls for a general election for another two years, the new party leader will become prime minister – Britain’s fifth in six years.
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Those seeking to replace Liz Truss, who resigned on Thursday after six weeks of chaos, must have secured 100 nominations from Tory MPs by Monday. Truss herself succeeded Johnson after his teammates ousted him in July.
The party hopes the competition will revive its faltering fortunes. Opinion polls suggest the Conservative Party would be on the verge of being wiped out if a national election were held now.
Johnson has not officially announced he will run, but five ministers have thrown their weight behind him, while media reports indicated that Sunak became the first leading candidate to reach the threshold to enter the competition before Monday’s deadline.
A Reuters tally of Conservative lawmakers making public statements of support puts Snack at 70 supporters, Johnson at 37, and Mordaunt at 20.
A return to the top would be an extraordinary comeback for Johnson, who remains popular with party members – although a YouGov poll of 3,429 adults conducted on Friday showed that 52% of Britons would not be happy to see him return as prime minister.
Conservative MP James Doddridge said Johnson had told him he was “ready for it” and that the former leader would return to Britain on Saturday after a holiday in the Caribbean.
But some have questioned whether Johnson, who left office comparing himself to a Romanian dictator who has twice taken power to fight crises, could win 100 candidates. Scandals and allegations of misconduct marred his three-year premiership.
Former Conservative Party leader William Hague said Johnson’s return was probably the worst idea he had heard in nearly half a century as a party member. That would lead to a “death spiral” for conservatives, he said.
Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who became finance minister as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and was second place for Truss in the recent leadership contest, is the bookmaker’s favorite, followed by Johnson. Mordaunt is again in third place.
The winner will be announced next week. If only one candidate has received more than 100 nominations from lawmakers by Monday, that person will be declared the winner; If three candidates reach the threshold, lawmakers’ vote on Monday will eliminate one candidate, with party members then choosing between the two remaining candidates and the winner announced on Friday.
Truss, whose economic plans have proven disastrous, will be Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister.
Thursday’s scene of another unpopular prime minister delivering his resignation speech in Downing Street highlighted how volatile British politics have been since the 2016 Brexit vote.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, said leaving the EU had brought instability to Britain.
“I hope they settle down soon because even if they are no longer family members, they are friend and neighbour,” he told reporters in Brussels.
Johnson, the directive of the Brexit campaign, led his party to victory in the last general election in 2019, leading many Conservatives to say he alone has a mandate as leader. But not all members of the public were convinced.
Former accountant Fiona Waldron, 60, said: “I think they are assuming he will win the next election because he did well in the last election. But a lot has changed since then. I think he showed that he is completely lacking in integrity.” .
Opposition parties, some newspapers, and even a few Conservative MPs called for a general election.
Labor leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives “cannot respond to the recent chaos by simply tapping once again on their fingers and shuffling the people at the top without the consent of the British people”.
“They don’t have a mandate to put the country to another trial.”
Some conservative lawmakers have urged their colleagues to rally around one candidate to avoid a painful battle.
Sunak, who has warned that Truss’ financial plans risk economic instability, is unpopular with some party members after he helped spark a rebellion against Johnson.
Mordaunt is seen as a new face, but it hasn’t been tested either.
The next leader will inherit an economy headed into recession, with high interest rates and inflation over 10%, leaving millions facing cost-of-living pressure.
Friday’s polls showed pessimistic British shoppers are curbing spending, while worse-than-expected public borrowing numbers shed light on the economic challenges ahead. A spokeswoman for Truss said her successor would decide whether to go ahead with a financial plan scheduled for October 31.
Whoever takes the helm will have a mountain to climb to restore the party’s reputation.
“Whether a change of leader will be enough to make conservatives have electoral credibility is highly debatable,” political scientist John Curtis told LBC.
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Additional reporting by William James, Movija M, Sachin Ravikumar, Alistair Smoot, Farouk Suleiman and William Schomberg in London and John Chalmers in Brussels. Editing by Catherine Evans, Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien
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