Rishi Sunak is the frontrunner to become Britain’s next prime minister after Boris Johnson withdrew from the Conservative Party leadership race to replace Liz Truss, who resigned last week after economic turmoil.
With the support of nearly 150 Conservative MPs, Sunak – who served as chancellor under Johnson – has emerged as the frontrunner in the Conservative leadership race.
The only other challenger, Benny Mordaunt, is said to have the support of fewer than 30 MPs. A candidate requires nominations from at least 100 MPs to run in the race.
Johnson had raced home after a holiday in the Caribbean in a bid to secure the support of 100 lawmakers to enter the contest to replace Truss, the woman who succeeded him in September after he was forced to resign by a series of scandals.
He said late Sunday that he had the support of 102 lawmakers and would have “come back to Downing Street”, but failed to persuade Sunak, or other rival Mordaunt, to come together “in the national interest”.
“I think I have a lot to offer but I’m afraid this is simply not the time,” Johnson said.
The former prime minister had the public support of just under 60 Conservative MPs by Sunday.
Johnson’s statement could potentially pave the way for his arch-rival, 42-year-old Sunak, to become prime minister, possibly on Monday.
If confirmed, he will replace Trus, who was forced to resign after she launched an economic program that sparked turmoil in financial markets. Under the rules, if only one candidate has the support of 100 Conservative MPs, they will be appointed prime minister on Monday.
If two of the candidates cross the threshold, they will go ahead with a vote on party membership, with the winner announced on Friday, just days before new Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt will reveal the country’s financial health in a budget plan due to be released. On October 31.
This has raised fears that Johnson will return to Downing Street with the support of party members rather than a majority of lawmakers in Parliament, leaving the party deeply divided. Hunt announced his support for Sunak late Sunday.
“I’ve never known this kind of hate and division and it’s destabilizing,” said Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative lawmaker. “It destabilizes the party and destabilizes the country.”
“ rips itself apart
Some Johnson supporters might turn to Mordaunt, who presented herself as the unit candidate, but many immediately turned to Sunak. A source close to Mordaunt’s campaign said the former defense minister would continue to compete.
“It’s the unifying candidate who is most likely to hold the Tory wings together,” the source said.
Johnson has loomed large over British politics since becoming mayor of London in 2008 and becoming the face of the Brexit vote in 2016. As he led the Conservative Party to a landslide election in 2019, he was forced to step down for just three years in a row. After his ministers rebelled.
Sunak said he hoped Johnson would continue to contribute to public life “at home and abroad”.
A Sunak supporter, who asked not to be named, told Reuters news agency his main reaction was relief that if Johnson wins, “the party will tear itself apart”.
“I supported Boris for prime minister, but I think he did the right thing for the country,” another Conservative lawmaker, Lucy Allen, said on Twitter.
Johnson’s other supporters immediately jumped ship.
“Today is a long time in politics,” said Cabinet Office Minister Nadim Zahawi, who, minutes ago, published an article on the Daily Telegraph’s website praising Johnson.
“Rishi is very talented, he will have a strong majority in the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and he will have my full support and loyalty,” he said.
Earlier, many Conservative lawmakers who normally support Johnson switched their support to Sunak, saying the country needed a period of stability after months of turmoil that made headlines – and alarmed – around the world.
Johnson also still faces a concessions committee investigation into whether he misled Parliament about Downing Street parties during the COVID-19 lockdowns. He may be forced to resign or suspended from office if found guilty.
Alex Dean, a commentator from the Conservative Party, said that although Johnson has given up trying to get him back, many people in the UK believe he can still run again in the future.
A week ago we were surprised if we were thinking of Boris Johnson becoming our prime minister again so soon. So it’s been a whirlwind of events here in London,” Dean told Al Jazeera.
“Never write Boris Johnson completely. The political graveyard is full of jobs of people who say Boris Johnson is over. In fact, he has left the door open to get back on the road in his message to his supporters saying he won’t run this time.”
Questions about legality
Dean said Sunak, while he would almost certainly be confirmed as the UK’s next prime minister, faces many challenges.
The Conservative Party has now brought down three prime ministers in a row. If you were to ask Theresa May, or Boris Johnson, or Liz Truss, I think all of them would tell you, the people within their party were the ones to fear most, and we will now have our third Prime Minister in one year. He will face some questions about legality. You know, in 2019 people voted for Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, not Rishi Sunak. He had a large number of people in the party who were not keen on him becoming prime minister. So there are real challenges, but the biggest problem actually isn’t with Sunak’s behaviour. The biggest problem would be for the party to assemble and get behind it.”
Sunak first captured national attention when at the age of 39 he became Johnson’s finance minister as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the UK, where he developed a leave scheme to support millions of people through multiple lockdowns.
“I have acted as your advisor, helping to guide our economy through the most difficult times,” Sunak said in a statement on Sunday. “The challenges we face now are greater. But the opportunities – if we make the right choice – are enormous.”
If selected, Sunak would be the UK’s first Indian Prime Minister.
His family immigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, a period when many people from the former British colonies arrived to help rebuild the country after World War II.
After graduating from Oxford, he later went to Stanford University where he met his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father was Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys.
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