Former British Treasury chief Rishi Sunak was the frontrunner Sunday in the Conservative Party’s race to replace Liz Truss as prime minister. Sunak garnered the public support of over 100 Tory lawmakers to forge ahead of his two main rivals: former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and ex-Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt.
But widespread uncertainty remained after British media reported that Sunak held late-night talks with Johnson on Saturday. Speculation mounted that the pair could strike a deal to unite the fractured governing party after it was left reeling from Truss’ rapid downfall following Johnson’s ouster.
The Conservative Party hastily ordered a contest that aims to finalize nominations Monday and install a new prime minister — its third this year — within a week.
Sunak, 42, was runner-up after Truss in this summer’s Tory leadership race to replace Johnson after he was forced out by a string of ethics scandals. On Sunday, he confirmed he was running again in the latest leadership contest.
Sunak has the backing of at least 124 Conservative lawmakers, according to unofficial tallies compiled by British news organizations. That’s well ahead of the 100 nominations required to qualify.
“There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of the government I lead and I will work day in and day out to get the job done,” Sunak said in a statement.
Johnson, who has not yet declared if he is running, has public support from about 50 lawmakers so far, while Mordaunt had support from about 23, according to the unofficial tallies.
U.K. Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told the BBC on Sunday that he spoke with Johnson and “clearly he’s going to stand” after flying back to London Saturday from a vacation in the Dominican Republic.
Mordaunt and Johnson — if he confirms he is running — have until Monday afternoon to garner 100 nominations. If all three meet the threshold, lawmakers will vote to knock out one and then hold an indicative vote on the final two.
The party’s 172,000 members would then get to decide between the two finalists in an online vote. The new leader is due to be selected by Friday.
A possible return to power for Johnson, 58, who officially quit only in early September, has deeply divided the Conservatives and alarmed many others. Supporters say he is a vote winner and has enough support from lawmakers, but many critics warn that another Johnson government would be catastrophic for the party and the country.
Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, a former backer of Johnson and an influential politician within the Conservative Party, warned a Johnson comeback would be a “guaranteed disaster.” Baker noted that Johnson still faces an investigation into whether he lied to Parliament while in office about breaking his government’s own coronavirus restrictions during parties at Downing Street.
If found guilty, Johnson could be suspended as a lawmaker.
“This isn’t the time for Boris and his style,” Baker told Sky News on Sunday. “What we can’t do is have him as prime minister in circumstances where he’s bound to implode, taking down the whole government … and we just can’t do that again.”
But Johnson won the backing of several senior Conservatives, including Nadhim Zahawi, another former Treasury chief.
“He was contrite and honest about his mistakes. He’d learned from those mistakes how he could run No. 10 and the country better,” Zahawi said.
Truss quit Thursday after a turbulent 45 days, conceding that she could not deliver on her botched tax-cutting economic package, which she was forced to abandon after it sparked fury within her party and weeks of turmoil in financial markets.
Sunak, who was Treasury chief from 2020 until this summer, steered Britain’s slumping economy through the coronavirus pandemic. He quit in July in protest of Johnson’s leadership.
In the summer contest to replace Johnson, Sunak called promises by Truss and other rivals to immediately slash taxes reckless “fairy tales” and argued that climbing inflation must be controlled first.
Tory voters backed Truss over Sunak, but he was proved right when Truss’ unfunded tax-cutting package triggered chaos in the markets in September.
Dozens among Britain’s 357 Conservative lawmakers have not yet publicly declared whom they are backing to replace Truss.