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Surely not Boris? Runners and riders for next UK prime minister as Liz Truss quits

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LONDON — Whisper it, but Boris Johnson could be on the comeback trail.

The ousted former Conservative leader is strongly rumored to be mulling a return to 10 Downing Street — less than two months after leaving to make way for Liz Truss.

Truss’ premiership imploded with spectacular speed in 44 days, and her dramatic exit paves the way for a lightning leadership contest.

The outgoing PM said a new leader will be elected within a week, with detail of the exact leadership contest rules still being hashed out by party grandees in the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs.

Contenders and pretenders have been shadow-boxing for position since it became clear Truss would struggle to stay in post, although one potential contender, Truss’ hastily-appointed top finance minister Jeremy Hunt, has already ruled out a run. Here’s POLITICO’s guide to who’s in the frame.

Boris Johnson

The colorful Brexiteer needs little introduction. In what would be an astonishing twist in the long-running Tory psychodrama, a host of U.K. newspapers including the Times are reporting that Johnson is planning to throw his hat (back) into the ring.

Johnson — who led the Tories to a stunning election victory in 2019 but was heavily criticized for his handling of a series of scandals — maintains a large constituency of support among Tory MPs and grassroots members. Former Cabinet minister and chief cheerleader Nadine Dorries has been gunning for his return, while fellow Tory MP Paul Bristow told Sky News Thursday the message from his constituents was clear: “Bring back Boris.”

There’s nothing to stop a return to Downing Street for a former prime minister, but a comeback would heavily depend on how party grandees choose to draw up the rapid-fire contest to replace Truss. He could be locked out of the final vote among Tory members — bruised by the Truss disaster — if MPs do not choose him as one of the final two candidates on which the grassroots will have a say.

Johnson’s defenestration was bloody, with major ministerial resignations, and more than four in 10 of his own MPs saying they had no confidence in his leadership during a vote in June, so don’t expect an easy ride.

The ex-PM is currently living his best life too — giving lucrative overseas speeches, and holidaying in the Caribbean with his wife and family. He’s so far staying publicly silent on whether he’ll give it a shot.

Rishi Sunak

The diminutive, smooth-talking former chancellor is the early favorite with bookmakers, who reckon he can seize the top job this time around — after being soundly beaten by Truss just weeks ago.

While Sunak was the top pick of Tory MPs, grassroots members opted for Truss over Sunak by 57 to 43 percent in the final vote. Truss did not even offer him a job in her Cabinet.

As market turmoil engulfed Truss’ government, Sunak kept his counsel, staying away from the party’s messy annual conference in Birmingham. But he gave prescient warnings during the leadership race about the economic havoc her debt-funded tax-cutting agenda could unleash, and his experience at the all-powerful U.K. Treasury could allow him to offer a steady hand on the tiller.

Sunak remains controversial with Tory members, however. He spectacularly quit as Johnson’s chancellor, in a move that helped end that premiership. MPs and activists loyal to Johnson swiftly accused Sunak of putting his ambitions before the country.

While he rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic with bold economic interventions to try and avert economic havoc, Sunak’s public popularity took a hit amid a row over his wife’s tax affairs.

Penny Mordaunt

The current leader of the House of Commons failed to reach the membership stage of the summer leadership race, despite emerging as an early favorite. But she’s not done herself much damage since then.

Mordaunt — a former defense secretary known for plain-speaking — was rewarded with a place at Truss’ Cabinet table, playing a key ceremonial role in King Charles III’s ascension to the throne.

In a show of power, she caused a stir at the Conservatives’ annual conference, openly pressuring Truss to increase social security spending in a more generous way — and branding the party’s communications “shit.”

Mordaunt most recently stepped in for Truss after the PM swerved a request to explain her government’s massive economic U-turns in the House of Commons. She pointedly declared that Truss “is not under a desk,” eliciting laughter from MPs.

During the last leadership contest, Mordaunt drew support mainly from the centrist, One Nation caucus of Tory MPs. Alongside Sunak, some MPs have been proposing her as a potential “unity candidate,” but her struggles in the previous race suggest her appeal to lawmakers may have its limits.

Ben Wallace

Wallace’s reputation has soared as Britain’s sure-footed defense secretary during a time of global crisis and war in Ukraine. His role, involving plenty of overseas travel, has largely insulated him from the chaotic goings-on in Westminster too, and he’s done himself no harm by standing firm on a Tory-pleasing pledge to boost defense spending.

Wallace declined to run last time, but has found his name mentioned among those who could be favored to take over as a Tory unity candidate.

He is also a popular figure among his party colleagues and Tory members. In the most recent “league table” of Cabinet satisfaction ratings among members — published by the grassroots ConservativeHome website — Wallace sat comfortably atop the pile.

He’s been coy on his ambitions so far, insisting that he wants to remain in post as defense secretary (he was one of the few survivors in the post-Johnson clearout) and has rebuked colleagues for what he dubbed “political parlor games.”

Wallace is the only person on this list who voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, a decision that could come back to haunt him.

Suella Braverman

The right-wing, arch-Brexiteer — who left government Tuesday with a blast at Truss — still covets the top job.

Braverman was sacked by Truss as home secretary Wednesday, just a day before the PM announced her own departure.

In her letter of resignation, Braverman blamed a minor security breach, but also in writing that “the business of government relies upon people accepting responsibility for their mistakes,” she made clear her differences with Truss.

Braverman has made all the right noises when it comes to pleasing the right of the Conservative party, while alienating centrists in the process. Only this week she bashed the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati,” and a hardline stance on migration was seen as helping to put the brakes on a coveted U.K. trade deal with India.

A former chair of the European Research Group of hard Brexiteer Tories, Braverman could rely on their backing when she ran for the leadership in the summer. She dropped out of the race after failing to win the support of enough MPs and endorsed Truss, with her supporters moving the same way in a big boost for Truss’ campaign.

While she may be persuaded not to stand this time out of a sense of party unity, if there’s a candidate from the right, don’t count her out.

Kemi Badenoch

The trade secretary is another senior Tory who only enhanced her reputation during the leadership contest.

Her “anti-woke” and social conservative positions saw her rise from relative obscurity to become one of the party’s leading younger stars by the end of the contest, while also earning praise as a serious policy thinker from party grandees and former Cabinet minister Michael Gove.

Though in the end Badenoch came a distant fourth in voting among MPs, she has won admirers from the party’s right wing for railing against so-called ‘woke’ culture. She pointedly opposes gender-neutral toilets in public buildings, and, as trade secretary, has argued that the U.K. shouldn’t go around apologizing for its past.

Widely thought of as a likely future leader, Badenoch, like Braverman, may be persuaded not to stand this time for the sake of party unity, but she’s definitely one to watch.



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