Sunak and Johnson set to face off in UK leadership contest

The UK leadership race is shaping up to be a battle between two old adversaries: Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, who helped oust the former prime minister from office just four months ago.

Johnson’s campaign team claim he’s surpassed the required support of over 100 Members of Parliament, though dozens of those are yet to announce their choice, while Sunak has the public backing of more than 110. A direct runoff between the pair would be extraordinary, since it was Sunak’s resignation as chancellor in July which prompted an exodus of ministers from Johnson’s scandal-ridden government, leading to his resignation.

Neither has declared officially yet though both are expected to do so soon.

Truss’s dramatic resignation on Thursday triggered a leadership contest that will make her the shortest-ruling prime minister in British history when she exits next week. Her successor is left with an all-but-impossible task of healing deep divisions within the Conservative Party, after the last leadership race heightened a state of civil war in the party.

A comeback for Johnson would be shocking — he only left office seven weeks ago, after announcing his resignation on July 7. He remains popular with Tory members, so he could yet clinch it given they may have the final say, but there’s doubt over whether he would be able to unify his party. Many MPs are still angry that his shortcomings — including breaking the law during pandemic lockdowns — cost the party support in the polls. Truss has since driven that slump to a record low.

So far, Johnson has picked up support from the right of the party, which mostly backed Truss in the last race. Sunak appeals to more moderate factions, though he has picked up some support from MPs who previously backed Truss. They are both also competing against Penny Mordaunt, who on Friday became the first Conservative to declare she would run, but she’s struggling to garner enough support among MPs to get the required 100.

Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is backing Sunak, becoming the most prominent cabinet member to support him and potentially swaying the votes of others. She called him the “serious, honest leader we need,” in an article for the Sunday Times.

“We are very different people with a difference in approach on numerous issues, but I believe he understands the necessity for unity and bringing others along on the journey before making difficult decisions,” Badenoch wrote.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman is expected to announce later today whether she will run or who she will back if not, according to a person familiar with her plans. If she runs, it’s likely to split support on the right of the party, potentially pulling votes away from Johnson.

MPs including Richard Holden questioned reports from Johnson’s camp that he has enough support.

Both Sunak and Johnson secured the backing of senior members of the party on Saturday. Ex-Home Secretary Priti Patel, who didn’t declare who she was supporting in the last race, is backing Johnson while David Frost, who served in Johnson’s government, said Sunak was the right man for the job despite not backing him in the contest against Truss.

Johnson is seen to be more likely to win a race if it’s put to the membership, many of whom were frustrated he was ousted by MPs and voted against Sunak in the last contest against Truss. But some long-standing supporters of Johnson, including former Telegraph editor Charles Moore and Tory MP Johnny Mercer are calling for him to step aside to pave the way for Sunak.

Johnson is also being pushed to run by senior government ministers Simon Clarke, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Chris Heaton-Harris, though Sunak has the support of Tom Tugendhat and Sajid Javid — prominent Tories who didn’t back him previously.

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