LONDON — Britain’s former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak was the favorite on Sunday in the Conservative Party’s race to replace Liz Truss as prime minister. Sunak garnered public support from more than 100 Tory lawmakers to edge out his two main rivals: former prime minister Boris Johnson and ex-minister Penny Mordaunt.
But widespread uncertainty remained after British media reported that Sunak held late night talks with Johnson on Saturday. Speculation has mounted that the pair could strike a deal to unite the fractured ruling party after being left reeling from Truss’ swift downfall following Johnson’s ousting.
The Conservative Party hastily ordered a contest that aims to finalize the nominations on Monday and install a new prime minister – its third this year – within a week.
Sunak, 42, was a runner-up after Truss in the Tory leadership race this summer to replace Johnson after being forced out by a series of ethics scandals. On Sunday, he confirmed he was running again in the final leadership contest.
Sunak has the backing of at least 124 Conservative lawmakers, according to unofficial tallies compiled by British news agencies. That’s well ahead of the 100 nominations required to qualify.
“There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels of government that I lead and I will work day in and day out to get the job done,” Sunak said in a statement.
Johnson, who has yet to say whether he will run, so far has the public support of about 50 lawmakers, while Mordaunt has received support from about 23, according to unofficial tallies.
British Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told the BBC on Sunday he had spoken with Johnson and “he’s clearly going to stand on his own” after returning to London on Saturday from a holiday in the Dominican Republic.
Mordaunt and Johnson – if he confirms he is running – have until Monday afternoon to collect 100 nominations. If all three reach the threshold, lawmakers will vote to eliminate one, then hold an indicative vote on the bottom two.
The 172,000 party members could then decide between the two finalists in an online vote. The new leader must be chosen by Friday.
A possible return to power by Johnson, 58, who only officially stepped down in early September, has deeply divided conservatives and alarmed many others. Supporters say he is a winner in the vote and has enough support from lawmakers, but many critics warn that another Johnson government would spell disaster for the party and the country.
Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker, a former Johnson supporter and influential Conservative Party politician, warned a Johnson return would be “guaranteed disaster”. Baker noted that Johnson is still under investigation into whether he lied to Parliament while in office about breaching his government’s own coronavirus restrictions at parties in Downing Street.
If found guilty, Johnson could be suspended as a lawmaker.
“Now is not 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 doomed to implode, bringing down the whole government…and we just can’t do it again.”
But Johnson has won support from several senior Tories, including Nadhim Zahawi, another former Treasury chief.
“He was contrite and honest about his mistakes. He had learned from those mistakes how he could better lead Number 10 and the country,” Zahawi said.
Truss resigned Thursday after 45 turbulent days, admitting she could not implement her botched economic tax-cutting program, which she was forced to abandon after sparking fury within her party and weeks of financial market turbulence.
Sunak, who served as Treasury chief from 2020 until this summer, led the collapse of Britain’s economy during the coronavirus pandemic. He resigned in July to protest Johnson’s leadership.
During the summer contest to replace Johnson, Sunak called promises by Truss and other rivals to cut taxes immediately reckless “fairy tales” and argued that rising inflation must first be controlled.
Conservative voters backed Truss over Sunak, but he was proven right when Truss’ unfunded tax-cutting program unleashed market chaos in September.
Dozens of Britain’s 357 Conservative lawmakers have yet to publicly say who they support to replace Truss.