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UK Tories seek quick fix to Truss chaos as party faces wipeout

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The Conservative Party is desperate to draw a line under Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership, with a rapid leadership contest aimed at trying to give the winner a shot at overturning an unprecedented deficit in the polls.

Under rules announced Thursday, a maximum of three Tory MPs will be able to run. The next leader could be decided as soon as Monday, because once the field has been whittled down to two, the candidate with the least support will likely face overwhelming pressure to withdraw rather than give grassroots party members — who opted for Truss last time — the final say.

It is a reflection of how much Conservative Party managers are desperate for pragmatism, rather than ideology, to drive events over the next few days. Some Tory MPs are publicly ashamed of the chaos unleashed by Truss’s premiership, the shortest in British history, which triggered days of financial market turmoil and left people struggling with higher mortgage costs.

But in a faction-riven party tearing itself apart, there’s no guarantee that even the best-laid plans will produce a unifying candidate.

In what would be an extraordinary twist even by recent standards, supporters of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson have begun “Bring Back Boris” calls for him to replace his successor just months after he was ousted himself.

Even if he doesn’t run, Johnson’s backers could yet derail the prospects of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who was runner-up to Truss last time and his reputation has since been enhanced by the prescience of his dire warnings about her economic policies. But he is loathed by many MPs loyal to Johnson, who blame him for triggering the former premier’s demise in July.

Shredded reputation

For a party that likes to regard itself as the sensible steward of the economy, Truss’s tenure has been the ultimate humiliation. The Conservative Party also regards itself as the natural party of government, but after 12 1/2 years in power, it now faces an existential crisis.

Recent surveys have consistently shown Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party holding record leads, which if played out in a general election would result in hundreds of Conservative MPs losing their seats.

The next national poll is due by January 2025 at the latest, meaning Tory MPs are effectively trying to pick a colleague they want to lead that campaign. Many are calling for a more stable, businesslike figure than Truss’s self-styled “disruptor-in-chief” approach that backfired so spectacularly.

Most Tory MPs didn’t want Truss to win, but her small-state, low-tax vision won over grassroots members. That’s a key motivation for not giving them a choice this time. Another is that with each change of leader, critics warn that the Tory party’s mandate from its 2019 victory under Boris Johnson wears thinner.

Party managers have effectively set the rules this time to prevent a long, drawn-out process and to try to whittle down contenders to genuine heavyweights. Leadership hopefuls will need the backing of 100 Tory MPs just to get on the ballot, and a final two to be chosen Monday.

An indicative vote would then be taken among MPs, and there’s a strong feeling the loser would then drop out. If they don’t, grassroots members would have the deciding ballot and a winner announced October 28.

Johnson comeback?

Supporters of Johnson said they were holding conversations with Tory MPs on Thursday night to gauge his chances, while saying the former premier — whose scandal-ridden tenure was ended by an unprecedented exodus of ministers — had not made a final decision on whether to run.

Johnson is still popular with grassroots Tory members and would likely be confident of winning if he could make the final two. But the threshold of 100 backers looks challenging, given many MPs have not forgiven him for bringing the party into disrepute. He also faces a parliamentary probe into whether he lied over the lawbreaking parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic.

If a Johnson return fills many Tory MPs with horror, moderates and centrists in the party were robbed of a potential candidate when Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, who was parachuted in to replace Kwasi Kwarteng last week to try to calm financial markets, ruled himself out on Thursday.

Hunt has ripped up most of Truss’s plans and restored some order to markets. But he has also put the Tories on the politically dangerous path of punishing austerity, and is due to make a full fiscal statement on October 31.

Influential Hunt

That will hang over the contest, as MPs are likely to look at whether candidates commit to sticking with the chancellor. Hunt backed Sunak last time.

Meanwhile Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt is another likely front-runner, after she narrowly missed out to Truss for a place in the final runoff over the summer. She is admired for her performances in Parliament, and overshadowed Truss this week when she was given the job of trying to defend the prime minister in the House of Commons.

But she failed to shine in TV debates in the last leadership, allowing Truss to overtake her in the final round of MP balloting.

Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is “seriously considering” running, according to her office. She surprised many by performing well in the last contest despite a relative lack of government experience. If she tries a second time, it could split the party’s ideological right, potentially undermining Johnson’s chances.

Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis is also sounding out colleagues over whether he has the numbers, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

Yet whoever wins faces an uphill battle against an increasingly popular Labour leader. According to an Opinium survey for ITV, voters think Starmer would make a better prime minister than Tory front-runners including Johnson, Sunak, Mordaunt and Badenoch.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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