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Race to succeed Boris Johnson in Britain becomes crowded and testy

Britain's House of Commons
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement in the House of Commons in October 2019.
(House of Commons)
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Candidates to replace Boris Johnson as leaders of Britain’s Conservatives and thereby as prime minister are issuing various promises to the party faithful, as party officials prepared Monday to quickly narrow the crowded field of almost a dozen hopefuls.

Little-known junior minister Rehman Chishti became the 11th candidate to declare that he wants to succeed Johnson, who quit as party leader Thursday amid a party revolt triggered by months of ethics scandals. Other contenders include Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, current treasury chief Nadhim Zahawi, former treasury chief Rishi Sunak, former health secretaries Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, and backbench lawmakers Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch.

The new leader will be chosen in a two-stage election. In the first phase, the 358 Conservative lawmakers in the House of Commons will winnow the field to two candidates through a series of elimination votes. The final pair will be put to a mail-in ballot of all party members across the country. Under Britain’s parliamentary system the next party leader will automatically become prime minister without the need for a general election.

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The Conservatives’ 1922 Committee, which runs leadership contests, is set to elect a new executive Monday, which will lay out rules for the contest. The committee wants to complete the parliamentary stage of the election by the time lawmakers break for the summer July 21. That would mean a summer second round with a new leader in place by the time the House of Commons returns Sept. 5.

One key decision by the committee will be how many declared backers a candidate will need to get onto the first ballot. In the last leadership contest, in 2019, which brought Johnson to power, the threshold was eight, but it is expected to rise to 20 or more this time — a move that could eliminate some contenders immediately.

Many Conservatives are wary of leaving Johnson in office for too long, saying that a lame-duck leader is the last thing the country needs with war raging in Ukraine, food and energy price increases driving inflation to levels not seen in decades and growing labor unrest. Some also worry that Johnson — brought down by scandals over money, rule-breaking and his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against lawmakers — could do mischief even as a caretaker prime minister.

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In the wide-open leadership contest, contenders are striving to set themselves apart from the perceived front-runner, Sunak, who so far has the backing of more than three dozen lawmakers.

Many have repudiated the tax hikes that Sunak introduced to shore up Britain’s finances, which were battered by the pandemic and Brexit: a 1.25% income tax rise for millions of workers and an increase in corporation tax next year from 19% to 25%. Most candidates say they will scrap one or both.

“I want to cut all taxes,” said Hunt, who pledged to slash corporation tax to 15%. “The treasury’s own numbers say that you’ll get half the money back that you invest in cutting corporation tax because of increased business activity.”

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Truss said she would start cutting taxes “from Day 1,” and Tugendhat said he would “lower taxes across every aspect of society.”

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Sunak, whose resignation Tuesday helped topple Johnson, has cast himself as the candidate of fiscal probity, and warned rivals not to tell the public “comforting fairy tales” that will make the country worse off in the long run.

The candidates are trying to distance themselves from the mire of drift, disorganization and rule-breaking that sank Johnson — though most of them have served in his government, and some still do.

The candidates are seeking to appeal to an electorate of about 180,000 Conservative members who, in many ways, don’t represent the country as a whole: The group is older, whiter and more affluent, and much more strongly in favor of Brexit, the country’s departure from the European Union.

None of the candidates has so far renounced Johnson’s most contentious policies: legislation to rip up parts of its Brexit deal with the EU and a plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda. The latter policy is being challenged in the courts.

The party battle has already turned fractious, with rivals criticizing Sunak’s record as treasury chief, or chancellor of the exchequer, and Zahawi, his successor, fending off claims that he is being investigated over his tax affairs.

Zahawi said that he was being “smeared” and that he was unaware of any investigation by the tax office or other bodies.

Oddsmakers say Sunak is likely to be one of the final two contenders, but the race is highly unpredictable. Both Tugendhat, a former soldier on the party’s center-left, and right-wing rising star Badenoch have secured big-name support and could surprise more experienced rivals.

Johnson clung to power for months despite accusations that he was too close to party donors, that he protected supporters from bullying and corruption allegations, and that he misled Parliament about government office parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.

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He was fined by police for attending one of the parties, but went on to survive a no-confidence vote last month in Parliament, even though 41% of Conservative lawmakers tried to oust him.

But Johnson was brought down by one scandal too many — the latest involving his appointment of a politician who had been accused of sexual misconduct to a senior government post.

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