LONDON — Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak will battle it out with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to lead the U.K.’s Conservatives and become Britain’s prime minister, after the party’s MPs chose their final two candidates to go on to the next stage of the contest.
After a frantic final day of lobbying MPs for support, Sunak secured the backing of 137 colleagues in the fifth round of voting (up from 118 in the previous round), while Truss picked up the support of 113 (up from 86).
Trailing Truss by just eight votes in a knife-edge joust for second place was Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, whose campaign enjoyed an early surge only to falter in the final stages. Mordaunt is eliminated from the race after picking up the backing of 105 colleagues (up from 92 in the previous vote).
Sunak and Truss will now go on to a wider vote of the Conservative Party’s rank-and-file members, with a spate of recent polls suggesting Sunak could struggle to beat Truss, despite comfortably securing the support of the most Tory lawmakers.
Sunak served as Boris Johnson’s chancellor — his top finance minister and the second-most powerful job in the U.K. cabinet — until he dramatically resigned last month as part of the wider Conservative rebellion that called time on Johnson’s scandal-hit premiership.
Truss has held a string of Cabinet posts over the past decade and, despite voting to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, has managed to paint herself as the standard-bearer for Brexit among many MPs.
Both camps got their pitches to the wider membership in early, with Truss on Wednesday evening vowing to set out a “bold new economic plan that will cut taxes, grow our economy and unleash the potential of everyone in our United Kingdom.”
A spokesperson for Sunak welcomed what they called “a clear mandate from MPs” to lead the party, and said their candidate would now work “night and day” to build support among wider party.
They added: “The choice for members is very simple: who is the best person to beat Labour at the next election? The evidence shows that’s Rishi.”
The tight result caps a day in which rival leadership campaigns were locked in a frenzied bidding war over the 59 MPs who had backed eliminated candidate Kemi Badenoch a day earlier. One former Badenoch supporter said that, ahead of the final ballot, he was approached by 13 different supporters of Truss trying to get him on board.
Allies of Mordaunt spent the day trying to convince moderate Sunak backers who are privately horrified by the prospect of a Truss premiership to lend their votes to Mordaunt and lock Truss out of the final two.
For their part, Sunak’s team sought to stamp down on such tactical voting by their supporters, fearing that it could drive the ex-chancellor’s numbers down and lead Truss to overshoot him at the final stage. Mel Stride, the Sunak campaign’s chief whip, sent a WhatsApp message around to supportive MPs on Wednesday afternoon urging them to weigh in behind him and not lend their votes elsewhere to try and influence who he would go up against.
One Sunak-supporting MP said that unexpected voting tallies throughout the week were the result of “armchair masterminds” deciding to lend their votes to different candidates in bids to knock their least-preferred ones out of the contest.
The defeated Mordaunt heaped praise on her supporters in her own statement, and paid tribute to rivals Sunak and Truss for putting themselves forward for a “demanding role.”
After a run which saw Mordaunt face intense scrutiny — including from right-leaning newspapers — over previous policy positions, she pointedly added: “Politics isn’t easy. It can be a divisive and difficult place. We must all now work together to unify our party and focus on the job that needs to be done.”
With the Westminster-focused stage of the contest now over, Sunak and Truss will turn their attention to the ballot of the wider Tory membership.
The deadline for party members to cast their online or postal votes is September 2, with the winner declared September 5. Johnson will step aside September 6.
This story has been updated with further reporting.
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