LONDON: Several British lawmakers, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were trying to scoop up support on Friday ahead of a short, intense contest to replace Liz Truss as the nation’s leader.
Truss quit on Thursday after a turbulent 45-day term, conceding that she could not deliver on her tax-cutting economic plans.
The Conservative Party is holding a speeded-up race to replace her, which will see a new leader — who will also become prime minister — chosen within a week.
Former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt are among the bookmakers’ favourites – along with Johnson, who was forced to resign by the party just over three months ago after becoming mired in scandals over his ethics and finances. His return would be a remarkable resurrection for a politician who is popular and polarizing in equal measure.
Johnson, who remained a lawmaker after stepping down as prime minister, has not said whether he will run, but his allies in Parliament are working to gather support.
Nominations for a new leader will close on Monday afternoon, and candidates need the signatures of 100 of the 357 Conservative lawmakers, meaning a maximum field of three. Lawmakers will vote to knock out one of those and will hold an indicative vote on the final two. The party’s 172,000 members will then get to decide between the two finalists in an online vote. The new leader is due to be selected by Oct. 28.
Sunak, who came second to Truss in a summertime leadership contest, is favoured by some as a safe pair of hands who can steady the struggling economy. Mordaunt, who came third, is popular with the party grassroots.
READ | UK Tory rivals open truncated leadership race
But the wild card in the contest is Johnson, who is adored by some in the party as a proven vote-winner with a rare common touch, and reviled by others for the chaos and scandal that marred his three years in office.
Johnson ally Nadine Dorries said the party should pick him because “he is a known winner” who led the Conservatives to a big election victory in 2019.
“Having a winner in place is what the party needs to survive,” she told Sky News.
But some other Conservative legislators said they would leave the party if Johnson — who faces an ongoing probe by a standards committee over whether he lied to Parliament — returned as leader.
“I cannot see any way forward in government, at any level, for somebody who is under that kind of scrutiny, and I think highly divisive,” Tory legislator Roger Gale told Times Radio. “And I think that there would be people, indeed like myself, who would find ourselves in the awful position of having to resign the Conservative whip.”
The party’s second leadership contest this year comes after Truss became the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. She was elected leader by the Conservatives early last month after a party election to replace Johnson.
Truss' free-market economic package roiled financial markets, drove up the cost of government borrowing and home mortgages and forced emergency Bank of England intervention. Truss executed a series of U-turns and replaced her Treasury chief but faced a rebellion from lawmakers in her party.
Truss admitted Thursday that “I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party.”
READ | Why was Liz Truss' tenure as UK PM so short — and now what?
The new leader will be Britain’s third prime minister this year, and the Conservative turmoil is fueling demands for a national election. Under Britain’s parliamentary system there does not need to be one until 2024, five years after the 2019 contest that was won by the Conservatives under Johnson.
Opposition politicians say the tumult since then — and the decision by Truss to rip up many of the policies on which Johnson was elected — means the government lacks democratic legitimacy.
Polls suggest that if an election was held now it would be a wipeout for the Conservatives, with the left-of-centre Labour Party winning a large majority.
Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the Conservatives of presiding over a “revolving door of chaos.”
“This is doing huge damage to our economy and the reputation of our country,” he said. “We must have a chance at a fresh start. We need a general election — now.”