Path to 10 Downing Street opens for Sunak as Johnson drops out

Published October 24, 2022
In this file photo, British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak speaks at the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Blackpool, Britain on March 18. — Reuters/File
In this file photo, British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak speaks at the Conservative Party Spring Conference in Blackpool, Britain on March 18. — Reuters/File

LONDON: The past 24 hours have been like the Conservative Party’s summer leadership contest all over again, but with twice the intensity.

In a dramatic last minute announcement late on Sunday evening, former prime minister Boris Johnson announced he was withdrawing from the Conversative Party leadership race as it “is not the right time”. “You can’t govern unless you have a united party in parliament,” Johnson said in a statement.

He added, however, that he was confident he had the numbers to win.

The announcement came at the end of a long day that saw Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Johnson battle it out to replace Liz Truss for the party and country’s top slot in a heated race that the opposition has slammed as “a ridiculous, chaotic circus”.

The three hopefuls spent the past day canvassing for votes, in the hope that they could hit the magic number of 100 votes from MPs, to proceed to the next round. If only one secures this number, they automatically become the country’s next prime minister.

On Sunday evening, former chancellor Mr Sunak had a clear advantage as he became the first to secure the required number of endorsements, exceeding the minimum threshold by a comfortable margin. At the time of going to print, Mr Sunak had 140 MPs publicly throwing their support behind him. Mr Johnson was second with about 57 and Ms Mordaunt 24.

Mr Sunak formally entered the contest on Sunday, vowing to lead with “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, seen as an apparent bid to separate himself from Mr Johnson and Ms Truss.

“I want to fix our economy, unite our party and deliver for our country,” he said, as he announced his second bid to be PM in a matter of months.

“Every candidate’s going to be telling people to unite. I’m going to make them want to,” Ms Mordaunt told Channel 4.

Among the ‘big beasts’ supporting Mr Sunak are former home secretary Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and former health secretary Matt Hancock. Mr Johnson, meanwhile, had the backing of former home minister Priti Patel, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi.

Mr Johnson spent the day attempting — and failing — to strike deals with both the Mordaunt and Sunak camps. He later explained that he was reaching out to them “to come together in the national interest”, but was unable to do so. Some reports suggest he asked Ms Mordaunt to drop out of the race, and that she rejected his suggestion.

The Telegraph reported that Mr Johnson has been telling his supporters that Mr Sunak would be dogged by the “partygate” probe too, and that he is the only candidate with a “democratic mandate”.

According to the latest poll by Opinium on Sunday, Mr Sunak had increased his lead over Mr Johnson as the public preference to be next PM with about 45pc now saying they prefer Mr Sunak and 27pc preferring Mr Johnson.

Why did Boris drop out?

The question everyone was asking on Sunday evening was: why did Mr Johnson drop out if he had the numbers?

One analyst said it had everything to do with the Party­gate controversy that still hangs over Mr Johnson. Though many in the Conser­vative Party still believe in the former PM’s electoral appeal, at the end they believe MPs wanted to go “forwards not backwards” and felt it would be “embarrassing” to revisit the scandal at an upcoming parliamentary inquiry.

Others felt that perhaps Johnson didn’t have the numbers, and recognised how quickly the momentum fell into Rishi's camp, with even pro-Johnson newspapers like The Telegraph saying “now is not the time”.

It raised several questions about what was going on behind the scenes, and whet­her Johnson even had the backers he claimed he did as it was unlike him to shy away from the race in the name of “party unity”.

Mourdant’s chances

Unless most of those who backed Mr Johnson go into Ms Mourdant’s camp, Rishi Sunak will win the race and go on to become the country’s first prime minister from an ethnic minority.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2022

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