Rishi Sunak looks all but certain to contest the final run-off to be Conservative leader and the UK’s next prime minister, with trade minister Penny Mordaunt and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss still vying to take the second spot alongside the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In the latest ballot of Tory MPs Tuesday, Sunak won 118 votes — closing in on the key threshold of 120 needed to clinch a spot in the final two. He finished ahead of Mordaunt with on 92 votes and Truss on 86. Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch was eliminated, and the redistribution of her 59 votes will be pivotal in determining how the rest of the contest plays out.
Conservative lawmakers will vote for a final time on Wednesday to narrow the field to two, with grassroots Tory members making the final decision over the summer. The winner will be announced September 5.
While Truss will be disappointed to trail Mordaunt for a fourth round of voting after lackluster performances in televised debates over the past week, she’ll be heartened by gaining 15 extra votes to her rival’s 10. The picture now depends on how Badenoch backers react: Truss is a more natural fit for them.
For Sunak, whose resignation helped trigger Johnson’s downfall, the real challenge may be about to begin. Despite winning every ballot of Conservative MPs, various polls have shown he fares less well with Tory activists, though again the political outlook has changed rapidly based on the latest campaign pledges.
The contest has been hostile, triggering warnings from Tory grandees that the so-called blue-on-blue attacks are damaging the party’s standing with the wider electorate. Sky News was forced to cancel a televised debate planned for Tuesday, saying Sunak and Truss had pulled out.
Both Sunak and Mordaunt, who has surprised many with her campaign progress, have been especially targeted. Despite sitting in cabinet with Sunak, Truss accused the former chancellor of choking off growth.
Mordaunt has even faced criticism from her boss, Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who accused the junior minister of spending some of her time over the last few months preparing her leadership campaign, and of being absent when needed to do departmental work.
Many Westminster watchers expected a final two of Sunak and Truss at the start of the contest. Truss has made no secret over the years of her ambition to hold the top job in British politics, but her hopes now depend on 24 hours spent wooing backers of the ousted Badenoch.
There’s also the prospect that tactical voting by Sunak supporters may come into play as they seek to affect who he faces in the run-off.
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