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Five candidates left in race to replace Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s ousting last week has ignited a fierce and wide-open leadership contest among Conservative MPs hoping to be the next prime minister, with an unlikely outsider becoming the frontrunner for the top job.

LONDON (CN) — The race to replace Boris Johnson as British prime minister is reaching a critical stage, with five candidates remaining in the contest as Conservative parliamentarians work to whittle the contenders down to two.

After three rounds of voting this week, six candidates have been eliminated by members of Parliament, or MPs, from the original field of 11. Still vying for the top job are former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt, along with backbenchers Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch.

Under Conservative Party rules, MPs are given the task of narrowing the field down to two candidates in a series of votes. The final two then face each other in a vote among the party’s grassroots membership. Because the Conservative Party has a majority in the British Parliament, there is no requirement for a general election in order to appoint a new prime minister. The contest’s winner is scheduled to take over leadership of the country on Sept. 5.

While the outcome of the contest remains open, it has been electrified by polling which suggests that Mordaunt – a relatively unknown figure in British politics – is projected to defeat whichever candidate she is up against in the final round of voting.

Against Truss, she is projected to win by 55% to 37%, and polling suggests an even more resounding lead against Sunak, of 67% to 28%. While she also outpolls Tugendhat and Badenoch, they are considered unlikely to reach the final stage of the process.

It appears that Mordaunt’s ability to transcend factional battles in the Conservative Party, as well as her lack of association with the outgoing Johnson regime, has propelled her to the position of favorite among the party’s 200,000-strong rank and file membership.

But perhaps what is most striking about Mordaunt is how little is known about her. Elected as an MP in 2010 for the English south coast town of Portsmouth, Mordaunt hails from a naval background and has served in two Cabinet roles during the government of Theresa May, acting as the international development secretary between 2017 and 2019, followed by a brief three-month spell as defense secretary in 2019. During her periods in office, even close aids and allies have privately expressed a lack of familiarity with her political commitments, and noted a reluctance to engage in substantive political debate.

However, as a result of her low profile she is not strongly associated with the Conservatives’ previous 12 years in office – an asset for a party seeking a fresh start with a general election expected no later than 2024.

Mordaunt has emphasized that her focus as prime minister would be on the inflation-driven cost of living crisis that is pummeling living standards across the United Kingdom. However, she has not given specifics on how she would attempt to tackle the crisis. Instead, she has spoken in general terms about her intention to unify the party and her belief that she is the best placed candidate to defeat the opposition Labour Party’s leader Keir Starmer in a general election.

Starmer’s pitch to voters thus far has been simply that he is the antithesis of Johnson: professional, competent, honorable, even somewhat boring. It is a strategy that does not hold up against the more respectable figure of Mordaunt.

A clearer idea of an economic approach can be found in the pitch from rival candidate Sunak. Regarded as the establishment candidate with the most support among parliamentarians, Sunak is well known to the public for his management of the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, taking a more polished approach as chancellor in stark contrast to the haphazard Johnson.

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Sunak is the only candidate to have not promised immediate tax cuts, instead pledging to continue with the package of financial support for struggling households that he announced in May. The pitch is a risky one among Conservatives, for whom tax cuts are generally seen as a priority. But unlike Mordaunt he is a known quantity, with a cautious fiscally conservative approach. Sunak often acted as a block on Johnson’s more expensive spending commitments when in government – a factor that may appeal to the Thatcherite wing of the party,

However, Sunak’s brand has been tarnished by his association with the Johnson government. Like Johnson, he was fined by police for attendance at a coronavirus lockdown-breaking social gathering in 10 Downing Street – a scandal that proved politically fatal for the outgoing prime minister. He was also seen as a long-term Johnson ally, having been an early supporter of his leadership bid back in 2019, although Johnson is now reported to be furious at what he perceives as Sunak’s disloyalty in the final days of his premiership.

Sunak’s image was also badly damaged by a string of allegations of tax avoidance, and the revelation that he held a green card and had declared himself a permanent U.S. resident, even while he was the British chancellor. Concerns also exist about Sunak’s personal wealth – he is though to be the richest MP, with a fortune of 730 million pounds ($866 million), shared with his wife. Sunak is frequently accused of being out of touch with working people as a result of his fortune, particularly in the current economic climate.

While Sunak is almost certain to make the final ballot due his support in Parliament, he is currently projected to lose against all of the other candidates in the members’ vote.

Truss, the other frontrunner, is an ardent Thatcherite who has positioned herself on the right of the party, and has gathered the support of many Johnson loyalists. She is fighting a more openly factional campaign, seeking to unify the party’s low-tax, low-spending, Brexit-backing, traditionalist right-wing behind her leadership.

Truss has been known to be angling for a leadership bid for some time, often using her role as foreign secretary to boost her profile and bolster her Thatcherite credentials. She has hoovered up support from the MPs who remained loyal to Johnson, and is popular among the membership, but her campaign has been undermined by having to compete with a multitude of candidates on the party’s right. Badenoch, who remains in the contest, has been encouraged to stand aside in favour of Truss in order to prevent the right-wing Thatcherite vote from splitting, but has refused to do so.

If Truss can outpoll Mordaunt among MPs and make the final ballot, she stands a very strong chance of becoming prime minister, with greater support among the grassroots than Sunak. She is currently trailing Mordaunt among MPs, however, and her ability to scrape into the final two will depend on how much momentum she can build behind her campaign over the next week.

Although Mordaunt’s route to power is looking the clearest right now, the contest remains highly fluid and factional machinations among MPs may still shift the balance of power around before the final two are determined.

The question for the Conservative Party is whether they want to stay on the course set by Johnson under Sunak, veer further right with Truss, or take a leap into the unknown with Mordaunt. It is a decision that will be made quickly – but with huge ramifications for the U.K.

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