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The race to replace — and escape — Boris Johnson

Who is going to be the next UK prime minister?

The Race For The Conservative Leadership
A composite image of the five remaining UK Conservative leader candidates, from left: Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch, Rishi Sunak, Tom Tugendhat.
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Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Boris Johnson resigned last week, and just as quickly, the race began for his replacement.

Five contenders remain in the running to take over leadership of the Conservative Party, and of the United Kingdom, after Conservative members of Parliament voted in the first rounds of the leadership contest this week.

This is just the start of selecting a new party leader, a process initiated after Johnson became embroiled in one scandal too many and faced intense pressure from his party to step down. Johnson is expected to stay on as prime minister until September 5, when his successor is announced.

Who that will be is the question before Conservatives right now — and still a pretty open one, although some frontrunners are starting to emerge. The next leader will need to tackle mounting challenges: inflation and the cost of living crisis, war in Ukraine and its economic fallout, and the still-loose ends of Brexit. And the next leader will need to rehabilitate a Conservative party that’s now struggling with potential voters, and define the party away from the controversies and dramas of the Johnson government.

The last time the Conservatives did this, in 2019, Johnson was the obvious frontrunner, and the contest was all about Brexit. In 2022, the leadership contest is a lot less straightforward. A lot has been made of the ethnic diversity of the pool of contenders — something the Conservative Party has touted. But the biggest question the party is grappling with, in real time, is how much distance they want from Johnson. The answer may ultimately depend on who the Conservative Party thinks is most likely to help them win, again.

Boris Johnson looms over the race to replace him

The next UK prime minister will also come from the Conservatives, or Tories, as they’re called. The actual makeup of Parliament isn’t changing — early elections can’t be ruled out, but they’re not on the table at the moment — and the Conservatives will retain their majority and control of government. For now, the next general election isn’t happening until about spring 2024, so whoever takes over for Johnson is going to pitch themselves as the person who can best carry Conservatives to victory the next time.

But this also means the selection process is a bit exclusive — limited to Conservative MPs and dues-paying party members. In the first round of voting, contenders needed the support of at least 30 MPs to get to the second round. Six of eight met that threshold on Wednesday. Starting Thursday, candidates with the fewest votes will be eliminated in each subsequent round, until two remain. Then, about 200,000 or so party members will choose between those finalists.

A few frontrunners have emerged, but it’s still early days. The five currently left in contention, in order of votes from most to least, are: Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister who helped kick off the Cabinet rebellion against Johnson last week; Penny Mordaunt, the minister of state trade policy; Liz Truss, the foreign secretary; Kemi Badenoch; who was the equalities minister until resigning during the Johnson revolt; Tom Tugendhat, a backbench MP and former Afghanistan vet whose profile rose over his criticism of the US’s withdrawal last year. (On Thursday, Suella Braverman, the attorney general, was eliminated.)

Sunak is the leader after the first and second rounds, although the second-place finisher, Penny Mordaunt, is the favorite among party members, according to a recent YouGov poll — which means if she can make it to the finals, it looks like she has a pretty good shot. Liz Truss, the third-place finisher, had been whispered about as a possible future prime minister, but she’s underperformed so far. But it’s also possible candidates could surge as they win over the votes of those candidates who’ve been eliminated.

Boris Johnson may ultimately have the biggest influence on who prevails — not because he retains personal sway, but because the deciding factor for some MPs and voters might be how much the party really wants to distance themselves from him. Candidates like Sunak and Truss raised their profiles as part of Johnson’s government, which also means they’ve stuck by him through Partygate and Johnson’s other deceptions. (Sunak was fined alongside Johnson for violating Covid-19 pandemic rules.) Plus, though both Sunak and Truss have experience to campaign on, they also have a record in government that is more readily scrutinized, including Sunak, who helped steer the UK economy through Covid, but is now facing an inflation crisis.

On the flip side, the candidates farther away from government, or with lower-profile ministerial positions, may be seen as lacking experience, which may weigh them down given the economic and political pressures the UK is facing.

This tension may be why Mordaunt has emerged as the Tory favorite. She’s served in government under multiple prime ministers (Cameron, May, Johnson), but she isn’t one of the biggest names in Johnson’s government. She was a Royal Navy reservist and former defense secretary, credentials she’s used to prove her ability to handle current crises. She was an early supporter of the UK leaving the European Union, and so meets the Brexiteer mood of the party. And she is apparently a pretty savvy operator, having built up relationships with the Tory grassroots that are seeming to pay off at just this moment.

“Some of the other candidates would offer a clear break, if you like, with the Johnson government, but they are lacking in experience,” said Kevin Hickson, a senior lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool. “Whereas Mordaunt might have the right kind of balance between offering something fresh, and also having relevant experience.”

Beyond Boris, the economy and culture wars are dominating the race

The Tories may want to break with Boris, but they also likely recognize he was something of a singular figure. Their historic 2019 general election victory brought new voters into a party, including seats that had traditionally gone to Labour. Brexit, and getting it done, united Conservatives last time. But this time, the economy, including inflation, is the main issue.

Most of that debate has focused on tax cuts. Johnson oversaw tax increases, partly as a response to the pandemic recovery, and now many of the people vying to replace him want to return to more traditional Conservative principles of reining in public spending and cutting taxes.

They’re also selling it as a remedy to the inflation crisis by reducing the burdens that households have to pay. As Hickson said, it’s a kind of populist strategy to promise tax cuts, but candidates are struggling to explain how, exactly, they’re going to do it — and what public expenditures might be on the line. And indeed, tax cuts may sound nice, but they could be in tension with some portion of Conservative voters and the broader public, who may be a bit more conflicted about reducing public investments.

Sunak, who oversaw the economic policies of the past few years, may face a lot of pressure on this — and, again, has a record to be scrutinized. He has said he wants to get inflation under control, and then cut taxes. Others, like Liz Truss, have said they would cut taxes “from day one.” Mordaunt has said she would cut in half the value-added tax (VAT) on fuel, as well as raising the tax threshold for lower-income earners. Some candidates have more detailed plans than others, but lowering the tax burden is a common theme, even if the details are murky, including on how they’ll compensate for the lost tax revenue.

Culture wars are also bubbling up in the race, and one of the targets, as in the US, are trans issues. Candidates like Kemi Badenoch and the now-ousted Suella Braverman are seen as two figures trying to galvanize around “anti-wokeism.” Mordaunt, meanwhile, has defended trans rights before, but in a Twitter thread and public comments, she has tried to signal that she isn’t as “woke” as her critics made her out to be.

Conservatives have also put forward their diverse slate of leadership candidates as a counterweight to what they consider more leftist “identity politics.” Of the five candidates currently remaining, two are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and four are women. The Conservative party has made an effort to diversify its representation in Parliament, and promote rising stars, although the party membership is typically a bit whiter and older.

Taken together, this all sounds a lot like a political campaign, which is exactly what it is. Tax cuts that are tricky to pull off and a debate over the definition of a woman seem a little mismatched for what the next UK prime minister is up against. The UK’s inflation is at a 40-year high, and the risks of even more energy disruptions as a result of the war in Ukraine and Russian sanctions could deepen that emergency. The war in Ukraine is likely to go on, and the UK’s next leader will need to manage that response and work with allies and partners as much as possible. And things with partners aren’t so great, as the UK has threatened to blow up the Brexit deal it negotiated with the European Union, risking tensions and a possible trade war.

The next prime minister has the power to change direction. A lot will depend on whether the next party leader wants to truly distance themself from Johnson — or if they want to follow his course, just free from the chaos and controversies of Johnson’s making.