London: Liz Truss ousted Penny Mordaunt in the race to be Conservative leader and the UK’s next prime minister, pitching the foreign secretary into a final run-off against former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.
In a ballot of Tory MPs Wednesday, Truss won 113 votes to Mordaunt’s 105 as the trade minister’s early momentum stalled. Sunak, whose resignation helped trigger Johnson’s demise and who has led in every round, got 137 votes.
The focus now shifts to about 175,000 grassroots Tory members, who make the final choice before the winner is announced on Sept. 5.
A Sunak-Truss duel was widely predicted at the start of the contest, with both considered Conservative heavyweights having held two of the most senior positions in Johnson’s administration. They supported him through months of turmoil and a police probe into illegal pandemic parties in Downing Street.
But the outgoing prime minister’s shadow will now hang over them in very different ways. While Truss stayed outwardly loyal, Sunak’s dramatic decision to quit on July 5 - moments after Health Secretary Sajid Javid had done so - set events in motion that would ultimately bring Johnson down.
Sunak has tried to distance himself from his old boss, repeatedly referencing “disagreements.” The strategy is to appeal to Tories fed up with the scandal surrounding Johnson - though Sunak is undermined by the fact that like the prime minister, he was fined over “partygate.”
Meanwhile, Truss has faced the opposite challenge, having to justify her decision to stay on in Johnson’s caretaker government after dozens of ministers resigned. She even sat next to him in the House of Commons on Monday as he talked up his record in office.
Truss has defended her support, insisting she was bound by the cabinet’s “collective responsibility” when asked about Johnson’s controversies. She will be hoping there are enough Tory members who believe the prime minister has been ill-treated by the party after he won an emphatic 80-strong majority in Parliament at the last general election in 2019, the biggest win for the Conservatives since 1987.
Johnson has not publicly endorsed any candidate but close allies, including Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Brexit Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, back Truss. The latest YouGov poll of Tory members also point to a Truss victory.
Still, members’ opinions are volatile and both Sunak and Truss have about six weeks to make their case. A key question will be whether the tone of the contest will now mellow, after a bruising phase in Westminster that saw candidates turn on each other in with a series of smears and attacks.
In a televised debate, Sunak took aim at Truss over her past membership of the opposition Liberal Democrats and support for remaining in the European Union. “I was just wondering which one you regretted most?” he asked.
Following Wednesday’s vote, Mordaunt congratulated Sunak and Truss, and said: “We must all now work together to unify our party and focus on the job that needs to be done.”
Sunak, who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU, is eager to burnish his pro-Brexit credentials. Yet it is Truss who is now seen by many in the party as being more evangelical, and is credited with persuading Johnson to try to rip up the divorce deal with the bloc.
She has also managed to reinvent herself from being president of Oxford University’s Liberal Democrat society to being a true blue Tory, attempting to channel Margaret Thatcher - apparently even far as the way she dressed.
Brexit, though, could remain a sub-plot. The UK faces an economic slowdown that business leaders are concerned may turn into a recession, with inflation stuck at the highest level in four decades and set to rise past 11% in October.
Finding a credible response to a burgeoning cost-of-living crisis will be the first priority for Britain’s new prime minister and will likely shape how the contest plays out. And Sunak and Truss have very different approaches.
Most candidates have fallen over themselves to offer the biggest tax cuts, including Truss, whose pledges total 34 billion pound ($41 billion), according to Bloomberg calculations. But Sunak has stood out by warning against what he calls unfunded, “fairy tale” pledges that risk further fueling inflation. That has opened him up to attacks on his record as chancellor, including from Truss.
“Rishi, you have raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years,” Truss told Sunak in Sunday’s debate. “That is not going to help with economic growth.”
Truss-backer Rees-Mogg even labelled Sunak a “socialist chancellor,” following his heavy public borrowing to fund pandemic spending - anathema to Tory stalwarts who hold free-marketeer Thatcher as their icon.
That makes Truss’s promise to cut personal and corporate taxes a popular position, especially on the right of the Conservative Party. But a stark criticism of Truss’s economic position by Citigroup Inc. this week showed how Sunak could focus his counter-attack.
Truss’s policy platform poses “the greatest risk from an economic perspective,” Ben Nabarro, Citi’s chief UK economist, said in a note, citing “an unseemly combination of pro-cyclical tax cuts and institutional disruption.”