Another leadership hopeful will be knocked out of the race to become Britain’s next prime minister on Monday, leaving four remaining candidates in what has become an acrimonious and divisive contest to replace Boris Johnson.
Since Johnson said he would resign earlier this month after his scandal-ridden administration lost the support of many in his ruling Conservative Party, the race to replace him has taken an ugly turn with several contenders turning their fire on the frontrunner, former finance minister Rishi Sunak.
He has faced criticism on everything from his record in government to the wealth of his wife by those vying to make it to a run-off between the final two candidates, with foreign secretary Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt, a junior trade minister and former defence minister, his most likely opponents.
The race has become focused on pledges, or non-pledges, to cut taxes, at a time when Britain’s economy is beset with spiralling inflation, high debt and low growth that have left people with the tightest squeeze on their finances in decades.
At a televised debate on Sunday, the five candidates, including former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat, chair of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, attacked each other over their records.
”It is inevitable that the debate will become increasingly heated. There is, after all, rather a lot at stake,” Conservative former minister David Jones told Reuters.
”But the nature of the Conservative party is to have vigorous debate and then coalesce once a new leader is selected. I have no doubt that the same will happen on this occasion.”
The ruling Conservative Party’s 358 lawmakers will whittle the field down to the final two this week, staging votes which will eject the candidate with the fewest votes each time. Monday’s vote results will be announced at 1900 GMT.
The party’s 200,000 members will then select the winner, who will become Britain’s fourth new prime minister in six years.
Sunak still holds the largest number of votes among Conservative lawmakers, but Truss is catching up and Mordaunt is trying to reignite her campaign that took off in the early days, making her the initial favourite with bookmakers, but which has somewhat stalled in the face of hostile briefings to the media.
Truss took aim at Sunak on Sunday by accusing him of raising taxes to ”their highest level for 70 years” and choking off economic growth. Sunak retorted that Truss’s tax cuts were more socialist than they were Conservative.
Truss’s campaign tried to buttress their argument by pointing to a report by the CEBR, The Centre for Economic and Business Research, a private sector think tank, showing there was more room for manoeuvre from higher tax receipts.
”Liz (Truss) is the only candidate for PM with a clear plan to get the economy moving and help hard-working families. Now is not the time for business as usual on the economy,” a spokesperson for Truss said.
”The CEBR analysis shows that there is money for tax cuts whilst still bringing debt down.”
But Citi said in a note that Truss’s ”policy platform still poses the greatest risk from an economic perspective in our view with an unseemly combination of pro-cyclical tax cuts and institutional disruption”.