British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Thursday that he will step down after a wave of resignations by at least 50 lawmakers and government officials over the past 48 hours.
The resignations followed the revelation that Johnson had known that a Conservative lawmaker, Chris Pincher, was being investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct in 2019 before he was appointed to a senior role responsible for party discipline. Pincher resigned shortly after facing fresh accusations that he groped two men at a work event on June 29.
Those events are the latest in a string of scandals surrounding the beleaguered British leader, after an official investigation uncovered a series of illegal parties at his Downing Street office that took place during nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns. Although Johnson survived a subsequent no-confidence vote on June 6, more than 40% of Conservative lawmakers declared they had lost confidence in his ability to govern the country.
Eight candidates are now in the running to be the Conservative party’s new leader, and therefore prime minister. Below, a list of the candidates and their odds, plus what comes next:
Former finance minister Rishi Sunak was the first to announce his bid for leadership, and is currently the favorite to win, with odds of 6/4, according to the averages of various bookmakers’ predictions.
Sunak was one of the most senior cabinet ministers to step down on July 5. “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently, and seriously […] I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I’m resigning,” he wrote in a resignation letter to Johnson.
Johnson plucked former hedge-fund manager Sunak from relative political obscurity when he appointed him as finance minister, known as chancellor of the exchequer in the U.K., in February 2020. Sunak’s first full cabinet role was dominated by the fallout from the pandemic—the tens of billions of pounds of government support Sunak distributed to workers and businesses alike once made him the clear favorite to succeed Johnson.
Since being in the public eye, Sunak has cultivated a savvy social media presence and polished persona that sets him apart from older, traditional wings of the Conservative party. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, he supported the Leave campaign.
Despite having to increase public spending in response to the global health crisis, Sunak is a low-tax, small-state conservative. But at the same time, Sunak has also warned voters about “comforting fairy tales that might make us feel better in the moment but will leave our children worse off tomorrow”—a criticism of proposed tax cuts Johnson had floated.
Sunak’s popularity has waned in the months leading up to Johnson’s announcement. He has been criticized for being slow to react to the cost-of-living crisis affecting Britons, and controversy over his millionaire wife’s non-domicile tax status has further alienated voters.
Penny Mordaunt, the most popular contender not to hold a cabinet position under Johnson, is another favorite to succeed him at 2/1. The former defense secretary is a staunch supporter of Brexit but has been vocal in her criticism of Johnson over the “partygate” scandal.
Currently an international trade minister, Mordaunt has spearheaded efforts to establish commerce deals with U.S. states, and is considered a strong speaker in parliament. She is currently the only female lawmaker who is in the Royal Navy reserves.
She is popular among Conservative loyalists—coming second in the recent Conservative Home poll of potential Tory leaders.
Her campaign got off to an embarrassing start, however, after she re-edited a video following complaints from people featured in the clip. That includes British paralympian Jonnie Peacock, who opposes the Conservative party, and asked to be removed. And despite previously supporting trans rights, Mourdant has rolled back some of her views.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss has long been tipped as a potential future leader of the Conservative party, having won support among the party grassroots for her ardent Brexit support while a cabinet member and tongue-in-cheek social media presence. Bookmakers put her on 13/4 odds. In her current role, she has been a prominent figure in the U.K.’s response to the Russian war in Ukraine and has coordinated post-Brexit talks with the European Union.
Although Truss was quick to display her loyalty to Johnson following Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s resignations on July 5, she has for months been laying the groundwork for a future leadership contest, hosting “Fizz with Liz” drinks parties for Conservative lawmakers and inviting comparisons with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Despite Truss’ left-wing upbringing and foray into student politics as a centrist Liberal Democrat, she has since pivoted to champion small-state, conservative values. In her campaign video, she pledged to cut taxes “from day one” as prime minister.
Kemi Badenoch, whose odds are 71/5, has risen quickly through the ranks from first being elected in parliament in 2017 to her former role as equalities minister. Her brief time in parliament has not been free of controversy, however. In April 2021, Badenoch, the only Black candidate in the running so far, defended a government-commissioned report set up in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that concluded there was no evidence of “institutional racism” in Britain.
In an invesitgation by Vice, Badenoch is reported to have labelled trans women “men” and used the term “transsexual,” which trans people consider offensive. She has also pledged to overturn the government’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2025, if she is elected, having said it amounts to “unilateral economic disarmament.”
On 12/1, former army reservist Tom Tudenghat is perhaps the most scandal-free candidate in the running. He first rose to prominence in August 2021, when he criticized the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and detailed his experiences serving in the war in an emotional speech to parliament.
Having distanced himself from Johnson throughout the partygate scandal, Tugendhat is promising to provide a “clean start” for the Conservative party. His campaign pledges an “unrelenting focus” on the cost-of-living crisis affecting millions of Brits. But like many other leadership contenders, he plans to cut taxes, an approach economists have criticized.
Suella Braverman was the first person to join the leadership race, throwing her hat in the ring before Johnson had even resigned. As the attorney general, the former barrister is the chief legal advisor to the U.K. government. She is an ardent Brexiteer, which she called a “restoration” of the British state that had long been “subservien[t] to Brussels.”
She is staunchly on the right of the Conservative party, pledging tax cuts, curbs on immigration, and an end to the “woke rubbish” around trans rights. She wants to shrink the size of the state and recently said that “too many people in this country […] are choosing to rely on benefits.” Braverman did not mention that many people on benefits work. Her odds are 33/1.
Former health and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt lost out on the Conservative leadership to Johnson in 2019, and has since cast himself as the strait-laced antidote to the prime minister. Hunt aligns himself more closely with the center of the Conservative party, having campaigned in support of Remain in the Brexit referendum.
Nadhim Zahawi, whose odds are 97/1, first gained popularity as vaccines minister, overseeing the U.K.’s successful rollout of COVID-19 shots. His loyalty to Johnson has paid off—Zahawi was promoted to education secretary in September and now, following Sunak’s resignation on July 7, to finance minister. He backed Brexit in 2016.
But just two days after being appointed to the new role, Zahawi joined calls for Johnson to resign. “You must do the right thing and go now,” he said.
Zahawi came to the U.K. as a child refugee from Iraq, fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime. Although he has kept a relatively low profile in recent years, in 2013 he admitted to using taxpayers money for his heating bills at his stables, and in 2017 The Guardian revealed he had failed to declare his connection to two companies based in a tax haven.
What happens next?
In a statement to the British public on July 7, Johnson said that he would step down as leader of the Conservative party but would continue as prime minister until a replacement can be found.
The eight candidates will be whittled down to a final two via an internal party voting process that will take place over the next couple of weeks. Then, card-carrying grassroots members—of which there are some 200,000—will be able to vote for their preferred choice. The winner will be announced on September 5. As the Conservative party has a majority in the U.K. parliament, the winner of the party leadership contest will automatically become prime minister.
The new Conservative leader may decide to call a general election after being appointed—both Johnson and May did the same after assuming office. However, in his statement to the public, Johnson warned against the idea, saying it didn’t make sense when the Conservatives are “delivering so much and [with] such vast mandates, when the economic scene is so difficult domestically and internationally.”
On July 12, the Labour party’s attempts to call a no-confidence vote in both Johnson and the government—which, if successful, would have forced him to leave office immediately and trigger a general election—were blocked. “As the prime minister has already resigned and a leadership process is underway we do not feel this is a valuable use of parliamentary time,” a government spokesperson said, accusing the Labour party of “play[ing] politics.”
“We need a fresh start for Britain. We need a change of government,” opposition leader Keir Starmer said ahead of Johnson’s resignation. Recent polls show Starmer with high unfavorability ratings, though a poll by BMG Research taken just before Sunak and Javid’s resignations put the Labour party with a 10-percentage point lead.
The earliest opportunity for British voters as a whole to weigh in on the next prime minister will be in late 2024 or early 2025, given that the last general elections were in December 2019.
This story was updated on July 12 after the final list of Conservative party leadership candidates was announced.
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