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 isn’t well known but sounds good to members of the Conservative Party? Or could someone else become the main hope of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party?
Friday front pages famous and vocal British 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, Sun and Daily Express all put Johnson on their front page, while the left-leaning Mirror just called for a general election ‘now’ in large print.
It’s been less than 24 hours since Truss announced she was stepping down as leader, giving her the unenviable title of shortest prime minister ever. The party is working on a surprisingly short time frame and expects to complete its contest within a week.
No one has officially declared he is running, but the backers of the top three – and the new rules ensure there can be no more than three – have started declaring their support.
Rishi Sunak is the favorite of bookmakers. The finalist of the last leadership race was himself particularly discreet, but his The “Ready for Rishi” team has started to shift into high gear. They point out that in the last competition his candidacy received the most support from his colleagues and say that many of his economic ideas turned out to be prescient.
His critics claim he betrayed Johnson and blame him for helping to end that era. But according to the Daily Telegraphhe has more public statements of support than any other candidate.
“Rishi’s skill, compassion, economic foresight and leadership qualities mean he is the candidate to unite our party. Rishi’s charisma and wider appeal in the country means he is best placed to rebuild support for our Party,” wrote Nick Gibb, a Conservative Party MP.
Johnson’s supporters want him back from his plow — like the classic Cincinnatus-era hero brought back to deal with a crisis, which Johnson referenced in his resignation speech.
Rumors are swirling that Johnson, who was Britain’s 55th prime minister, may also want to be his 57th UK prime minister. Members of the ‘Bring Back Boris’ camp argue that Johnson is the only candidate who has a ‘mandate’ to lead. In 2019, Johnson helped his party win a huge general election victory. It’s unclear if anyone else can galvanize the populace to the same extent – or if Johnson himself 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. MEPs must demand the return of @BorisJohnson – if not, it must be a leadership election or a GE”, or a general election, tweeted Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist.
Johnson is the The best choice among the 170,000 members of the Conservative Party. But there is also widespread antipathy among the general public. His tenure was marked by scandal after scandal, and voters and his own colleagues were upset by his refusal to accept responsibility. He was the first sitting Prime Minister to be fined by the police.
Johnson is also still under investigation by the House of Commons for misleading lawmakers about the infamous Downing Street parties and he could still potentially be suspended from Parliament.
It was under his leadership that the Conservatives earlier this year began to slip behind the opposition Labor Party in the polls for the first time in years. Johnson is still under investigation for lying to parliament. Not so long ago, 41% of his own colleagues said they didn’t trust Johnson’s leadership.
It would surprise few people if he officially declared that he was running. After all, there was that Cincinnatus reference in his final speech and Johnson seems ready to leave the farm for his country again.
The third potential successor many see is Penny Mordaunt, who is looking to become a household name but may have a ways to go – in a survey, most respondents couldn’t name her when shown his picture. But her “PM4PM” supporters are seeking to change that, pointing out that she polls senior members of the Conservative Party better than Sunak.
Mordaunt’s visibility received a big boost in the final days of Truss’ tenure when she replaced Prime Minister in Parliament after the dismantling of the economic program and skillfully dealt with hostile issues. Many at the time speculated that it might be a dry run for own tender for the top job as he showcased his parliamentary fighting skills.
The candidates do not have much time to mobilize 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 on Thursday so the country could replace Truss quickly. Candidates must gain the support of at least 100 Conservative colleagues to advance in the race. It is possible that, given the high bar, only one candidate will be presented by Monday at 2 p.m., the closing date for applications.
If there are more than one, hopes will be dashed before the final two are offered to the Conservative Party’s 170,000 members. Officials said the contest would end no later than October 28.
Some have argued that this method is undemocratic. The new leader will either be chosen by a group of around 350 Conservative lawmakers or, if it goes to membership, then 170,000 – barely the same as an election for the whole country.
“By the end of October, the UK will have had three prime ministers in eight weeks, two of whom came to power without a general election…” the Financial Times wrote in an editorial. “The prospect of a new 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 deplorable 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 current polls, would likely result in its annihilation.