Two candidates were knocked out of the race to replace U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, leaving six lawmakers battling to lead a Conservative Party — and a country — hoping to move on from months of scandal and division.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Treasury chief Nadhim Zahawi failed to reach the threshold of 30 votes in a secret ballot by Conservative lawmakers needed to stay in the contest.
The remaining contenders will now scramble to scoop up the two men’s supporters in a contest that will replace the flamboyant, scandal-ridden Johnson — a figure famous in Britain and around the world — with a new and much lesser-known prime minister.
The vote confirmed the front-runner status of ex-Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, who came first with 88 votes. And it gave a big boost to Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, who secured 67 votes to come in second place.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss got 50 votes. Ex-Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, backbench lawmaker Tom Tugendhat and Atty. Gen. Suella Braverman also remain on the ballot.
The 358 Tory lawmakers had crammed into a humid corridor at Parliament on Wednesday afternoon to line up and cast their ballots in a grand room hung with oil paintings. Security staff made them hand over their phones to ensure secrecy.
Further rounds of voting will take place Thursday and, if needed, next week, until just two candidates remain.
The final two contenders will face a runoff vote by about 180,000 Conservative Party members across the country. The winner is scheduled to be announced Sept. 5 and will automatically become prime minister, without the need for a national election.
The candidates are jostling to replace Johnson, who quit as Conservative leader last week amid a party revolt triggered by months of ethics scandals. He will remain in office as a caretaker prime minister until his replacement as party chief is chosen.
Unlike Sunak and Truss, Mordaunt didn’t hold a senior post in Johnson’s government, though she was a junior minister. An affable politician from a military family, she is widely seen as a breath of fresh air and has been scoring highly in polls of party members.
At her official campaign launch on Wednesday, Mordaunt said the party had “standards and trust to restore” after the scandal-tarnished Johnson years.
She said voters “are fed up with us not delivering, they are fed up with unfulfilled promises and they are fed up with divisive politics.”
Supporters of Truss, meanwhile, are urging lawmakers on the party’s libertarian right wing — including backers of Zahawi, Badenoch and Braverman — to unite around the foreign secretary. Lawmaker Simon Clarke said that would “ensure there is a clear free market vision in the final two.”
Neither Hunt nor Zahawi endorsed a candidate after they left the race. Zahawi said, “I don’t intend to make any further intervention.”
The slate of candidates is strikingly diverse, with four contenders from ethnic minorities and four women. But all are offering similar tax-slashing pledges, with only Sunak offering a note of caution. He has cast himself as the candidate of fiscal probity, saying that the country needs “honesty and responsibility, not fairytales” to get through economic shockwaves from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Supporters of the other candidates have improbably depicted Sunak — whose heroine is former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — as a left-winger. Johnson’s office has denied running a campaign to bad-mouth Sunak, whose resignation last week helped end the prime minister’s reign.
A spokeswoman insisted Johnson was remaining neutral in the campaign to choose his replacement.
Johnson struck a valedictory note at his weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons. He hinted it could be his last appearance there, though he is scheduled take questions again next week, before Parliament’s summer break, and to leave office on Sept. 6.
“The next leader of my party may be elected by acclamation,” he told Labour leader Keir Starmer — though that would only happen if one of the final two candidates dropped out. “So it’s possible this will be our last confrontation.”
Johnson said it was “true that I leave not at a time of my choosing,” but insisted: “I will be leaving soon with my head held high.”