LONDON — Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak will battle it out with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to lead the U.K.’s Conservatives and become Britain’s prime minister, after the party’s MPs chose their final two candidates to go on to the next stage of the contest.
After a frantic final day of lobbying MPs for support, Sunak secured the backing of 137 colleagues in the fifth round of voting (up from 118 in the previous round), while Truss picked up the support of 113 (up from 86). Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, whose campaign enjoyed an early surge only to falter in the final stages, is eliminated from the race after winning the backing of 105 (up from 92 in the previous vote).
Sunak and Truss will now go on to a wider vote of the Conservative Party’s rank-and-file members, with a spate of recent polls suggesting Sunak could struggle to beat Truss, despite comfortably securing the support of the most Tory lawmakers.
Sunak served as Boris Johnson’s chancellor — his top finance minister and the second-most powerful job in the U.K. cabinet — until he dramatically resigned last month as part of the wider Conservative rebellion that called time on Johnson’s scandal-hit premiership.
Truss has held a string of Cabinet posts over the past decade and, despite voting to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, has managed to paint herself as the standard-bearer for Brexit among many MPs.
Rival leadership campaigns were locked in a frenzied bidding war Wednesday over the 59 MPs who had backed eliminated candidate Kemi Badenoch a day earlier. One former Badenoch supporter said that, ahead of the final ballot, he was approached by 13 different supporters of Truss trying to get him on board.
Allies of Mordaunt spent the day trying to convince moderate Sunak backers who are privately horrified by the prospect of a Truss premiership to lend their votes to Mordaunt and lock Truss out of the final two.
For their part, Sunak’s team sought to stamp down on such tactical voting by their supporters, fearing that it could drive the ex-chancellor’s numbers down and lead Truss to overshoot him at the final stage. Mel Stride, the Sunak campaign’s chief whip, sent a WhatsApp message around to supportive MPs on Wednesday afternoon urging them to weigh in behind him and not lend their votes elsewhere to try and influence who he would go up against.
One Sunak-supporting MP said that unexpected voting tallies throughout the week were the result of “armchair masterminds” deciding to lend their votes to different candidates in bids to knock their least-preferred ones out of the contest.
With the Westminster-focused stage of the contest now over, Sunak and Truss go forward to a ballot of the Tory membership.
The deadline for party members to cast their online or postal votes is September 2, with the winner declared September 5. Johnson will step aside September 6.
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