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The battle to succeed Boris Johnson

LONDON — Whisper it, but the race to succeed Boris Johnson is on.

Two of the prime minister’s top lieutenants — Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss — are on maneuvers, as Westminster insiders like to say, and Johnson’s recent woes have only intensified the speculation.

This month’s two-year anniversary of the U.K. leader’s resounding election victory came at a low point. Johnson was beset by scandal, weakened by insurrection in the ranks of his Conservative party, and gifted a bloody nose in a by-election which saw his party lose a seat it has held for almost 200 years. 

Some in the famously regicidal Conservative Party detect the beginning of the end, and predict an attempt to remove him by next summer. Others caution that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated. 

Whether his departure really is around the corner or another election cycle away, Truss and Sunak — widely regarded as likely successors — are taking no chances.

Sunak has had a meteoric rise from hedge fund whizz-kid to keeper of the nation’s finances at a time of major economic shock. Truss is the Remain-voter-turned-Brexit-champion, now responsible for remaking the U.K.’s foreign policy outside the EU.

In a sure sign that something’s up, their allies say they both have more pressing tasks in hand than their own future job prospects. But, in truth, the respective leadership campaigns are already well under way — even if some political observers are struggling to work out what the pair would actually do with the top job.

Vying for support

Any would-be successor to the British prime minister needs to gather the support of their party. Conservative MPs can trigger a vote of no-confidence in their leader if at least 15 percent of them want one and then a simple majority could topple Johnson in a subsequent vote. From there, wannabe leaders put their names forward and these are whittled down via a series of MP votes until there are two candidates left. The wider party membership then chooses between the finalists.

The support of their fellow MPs is therefore critical for anyone eying the top job. As fiercely as their respective camps may deny it, both Sunak and Truss have already been trying to sign up recruits.

A serving minister confirmed that “the Liz dinners are happening,” but said they’ve also “been happening for years, so if she gets caught she can argue it’s nothing special.”

Henry Hill, assistant editor at grassroots website ConservativeHome, said Sunak’s campaign “is starting to tap people on the shoulder and take soundings” both among MPs and potential external aides, and “the organization is definitely on.”

One intriguing element of the contest is that Sunak and Truss are both fishing in the same pond.

“In the past the big dividing line has been Brexit,” Hill observed. “Now we’re out [of the EU], the interesting thing about Liz and Rishi being the frontrunners is that they’re pitching not to identical wings of the party but to broadly the same base: the economically right-wing small L liberal.”

One ex-minister, however, was damning of both their attempts to tee up support among MPs. “Rishi is exactly the same as Boris in the sense that he has no loyalty amongst the parliamentary party,” they said. “He’s just been rewarded for being an effective chancellor, who was the right man at the right time. There are no Rishi-ites. There are a small number of Truss-ites, but they tend to be the lunatic fringe.”

The serving minister meanwhile said: “Rishi is a solo traveler with a small group of people around him. He is working on the leadership but he still hasn’t done outreach to some of the 2017 and 2015 [election] lot. His network isn’t as good as it might seem from the outside.”

Others dispute this characterization. As chancellor, Sunak has to do more sounding about policy than Truss, meaning he is inevitably plugged into the everyday gripes and obsessions of the Tory rank and file.

As MP for Richmond in Yorkshire, Sunak also has a reservoir of support among fellow northern Tories — and that could prove useful. He served as a communities minister alongside Jake Berry, the leader of an influential caucus of Northern MPs. And while he may be skeptical of committing long-term funding for Johnson’s “leveling up” project to spend more public money outside of the South East of England, Berry has been keen to sign off on various infrastructure projects in Teesside, not far from his constituency.

Tricky briefs

Sunak and Truss are pretty evenly matched when it comes to qualifications. However, both their current roles come with challenges that could dull their shine.

Sunak, the slick and smiley chancellor, has made his mark despite relative inexperience. Within weeks of landing the role, he scrambled emergency financial support for the millions of firms, workers and welfare recipients hit by the pandemic, turning him into a household name overnight. 

His personal ratings soon outstripped Johnson’s and his reputation for competence has earned him plaudits among backbench Conservative MPs, many of whom also admire his tough stance on COVID restrictions, international aid and apparent ambivalence towards Johnson’s net zero agenda.

However, his acquiescence in the imposition of new tax rises to boost health spending and fund England’s creaking social care system throws into question the traditional, small-state Tory credentials he is so eager to advertise.

Sunak has defended manifesto-busting tax hikes as a necessary measure in extraordinary times, repeating the phrase: “Whatever it takes.” But that phrase has been a cause for concern among some of his colleagues.

One former government aide said: “He has to he has to be responsible for those decisions. I don’t think he can just carry on with this ‘jam tomorrow’ approach to the country’s finances.”

Hill at ConservativeHome believes Sunak can weather this unease. “I think he can get away with most of it because of COVID, where we have had to roll out absolutely extraordinary amounts of public spending. There’s a constituency of Conservative MPs who will view him as the safe pair of hands whether or not he actually deserves that.”

Sunak’s ability to make this argument will nonetheless be strained by circumstances, with looming tax rises and inflation likely to severely squeeze incomes in the coming months.

He has also been conspicuous as one of the main Cabinet opponents of tighter COVID restrictions, pushing for the reopening of hospitality last summer and against any return to lockdown. This may be popular with much of the Tory Party, but could hurt him as the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic gets under way next year.

Truss has taken a similar position over COVID but was less central to these decisions and is therefore less exposed.

In contrast to Sunak, Truss is one of Johnson’s most seasoned ministers. She’s served continuously in the Cabinet since 2014, under David Cameron, Theresa May and now Johnson — demonstrating her ability to bend with the ideological fluctuations of the Tory party.

Her early performances in the justice and environment departments were widely criticized, but she has succeeded in turning the ship around since then — at least in the eyes of Tory members.

She polls consistently highly in ConservativeHome’s regular survey of readers, and has now enjoyed a full year as the most highly-rated Cabinet minister. As international trade secretary, a post she held until September, Truss was in her element, flying around the world and talking up Britain’s freedom to flourish outside the EU. Becoming foreign secretary allows her to continue in that mode even more bullishly, with a particular emphasis on bolstering the U.K.’s Indo-Pacific ties and talking tough in the direction of China and Russia.

Truss has lately been handed another opportunity — or a poisoned chalice. She was picked to lead negotiations on post-Brexit trade arrangements with the EU after the abrupt resignation of the notoriously hard-nosed David Frost.

There had been speculation she would adopt a more conciliatory position on the tricky issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, but there seems to be scant sign of that so far following her first call with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. A person with knowledge of Truss’s operation said it showed she had made the calculation that only a hardline stance can preserve her popularity.

Several MPs suggested it suited Johnson to keep the pair in these parallel difficult briefs. One minister who has worked closely with Truss said: “Boris doesn’t mind them doing a bit of peacocking — it’s better to keep the two of them level-pegging because then they fight each other.”

Another senior Tory said handing the Brexit reins to Truss is “brilliant for Boris” as “he is now forcing her to dip her hands in the blood” of unforgiving negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Sunak and Truss are by no means the only contenders should Johnson falter. Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi and Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt may all fancy their chances, and have been recently filling their war chests with donations. 

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt — who lost to Johnson in 2019 — is another possible contender. The same former government aide quoted above said of the Tories: “They always overcorrect for the previous leader.”

Neither Sunak or Truss should be seen as a “slam dunk,” that aide said, with Truss “not seen as serious” and Sunak “elite and out of touch.”

Conservative leadership contests are always difficult to call and, for a time, the received wisdom was that the frontrunner seldom triumphs — until Johnson did so in 2019. But it will be tricky for either to get as far ahead of the pack as Johnson did while they are in direct competition with each other.

Meanwhile, doubts persist about what either senior Tory actually believes in. The first minister quoted above described Sunak as “a classic management consultant — he looks for a gap in the market and tries to fill it,” claiming: “Neither of them have built a particular ideology.”

Even if that is the case, Truss and Sunak may reflect that the same charge did not impede the current prime minister on his journey to the top.

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