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Tory leadership race: Crowded field as flood of candidates bid to succeed Boris Johnson

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By Alasdair Sandford  with AFP, Reuters
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Front pages of British national newspapers, each leading with a front page story of the resignation of Boris Johnson as leader of Britain's Conservative Party, July 8, 2022.
Front pages of British national newspapers, each leading with a front page story of the resignation of Boris Johnson as leader of Britain's Conservative Party, July 8, 2022.   -   Copyright  CARLOS JASSO / AFP

Several new contenders in the British Conservative Party's latest leadership race have thrown their hats into the ring this weekend, opening up the field to replace the departing Boris Johnson.

The wide variety of candidates heralds a potentially bitter contest over the summer to take over as party leader and therefore also as the UK's new prime minister. Last week Johnson agreed to resign — once a new leader is chosen — after a series of domestic scandals implicating his leadership and integrity. 

The number of candidates stood at nine on Sunday morning after the former health minister Sajid Javid, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Nadhim Zahawi, and the ex-foreign and health minister Jeremy Hunt all entered the race.

Trade minister Penny Mordaunt then became the latest to declare her candidacy, launching a campaign video saying "our leadership has to change".

They were preceded by the current transport minister Grant Shapps, who is advocating his stance against the main rail union amid an ongoing industrial dispute. 

Former finance minister Rishi Sunak — whose resignation on Tuesday night along with Javid triggered a flurry of others — is among the favourites for the job.

Sunak announced his leadership bid on Friday with a campaign video in which he promised to confront the difficult economic backdrop with "honesty, seriousness and determination", rather than piling the burden on future generations.

"Someone has to grip this moment and make the right decisions," he said.

Former UK Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch added her name to the list of contenders on Saturday. She was one of nearly 60 members of parliament and aides who resigned this week to force Johnson from office.

In an article in The Times newspaper, Badenoch called for change and said British opinion was "exhausted by platitudes and empty rhetoric".

Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat and Attorney General Suella Braverman have also officially announced their candidacies.

But Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who had been considered a potentially strong contender, has pulled out of the race.

Sunak the party's favourite, says poll

The announcement of Rishi Sunak's candidacy won the immediate support of several MPs. He is also the preferred candidate among Conservative Party members, a quarter of whom favour him, according to a poll last week.

The ex-finance minister is followed by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is backed by 21% of party members, according to the Opinium poll for Channel 4 News. Truss however has yet put her name forward.

Sunak was made finance minister in February 2020, replacing Sajid Javid who quit just two months after the Tories' landslide election win in December 2019. He was praised for a COVID-19 economic rescue package, including a costly jobs retention programme that averted mass unemployment.

But he later faced criticism for not giving enough cost-of-living support to households. Revelations this year about his wealthy wife's non-domiciled tax status and a fine he received for breaking COVID lockdown rules have damaged his standing.

His tax-and-spend budget last year put Britain on course for its biggest tax burden since the 1950s, undermining his claims to favour lower taxes. 

Sunak voted for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum. A report by the Centre for European Reform in June suggested that his latest tax rises "would not have been needed if the UK had stayed in the EU (or in the single market and customs union)", arguing the post-COVID recovery would have been less sluggish.

Enter Cabinet heavyweights — Exit Ben Wallace

Another potential strong runner has pulled out of the race. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, tweeted on Saturday to say he would not be standing. The Opinium poll of Tory members had put him third with 12% support.

The entry of Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt sees several Conservative heavyweights join the race. 

Javid's resignation from the government last week along with Sunak prompted the haemorrhage of ministerial walkouts that made Boris Johnson's leadership untenable.

Zawahi has been a staunch supporter of Johnson and was made finance minister after Sunak quit. Hunt, who backed the UK's continued EU membership in the 2016 referendum, was the runner-up to Johnson in the 2019 Tory leadership race.

Penny Mordaunt, a staunch supporter of Brexit, has been in the forefront of the British government's drive to strike post-Brexit trade deals with other countries beyond the EU.

Tom Tugendhat is chair of parliament's foreign affairs committee, and a former soldier who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been a regular critic of Johnson and would offer his party a clean break with previous governments.

He has never served in cabinet and also bucks the prevailing Conservative Party trend in that he voted to remain in the European Union.

In contrast, Suella Braverman campaigned to leave the EU. She resigned from her junior post in the then prime minister Theresa May's government in protest at her proposed Brexit deal, saying it did not go far enough in breaking ties with the bloc.

As attorney general under Boris Johnson, Braverman was heavily criticised by lawyers after the government sought to break international law over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.

She said her priorities as leader would be to shrink the size of the state and cut spending to curb inflation, and also cited illegal migration and foreign courts.

"We need to solve the problems of the boats across the Channel, we need to stop a foreign court interfering in our domestic affairs, we need to make sure that Brexit opportunities are felt for everybody in this country, and lastly we need to get rid of all this 'woke' rubbish," Braverman said in a TV interview.

Kemi Badenoch has held junior ministerial jobs but has never served in cabinet. A former Conservative member of the London Assembly and party vice-chair, she supported Brexit in 2016.

A timetable for the Conservative Party leadership race is expected on Monday, with the winner to be invested by the party's annual conference in early October.