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.