LONDON – The two candidates vying to become Britain’s next prime minister began a head-to-head battle Thursday for the votes of Conservative Party members who will choose the country’s new leader.
Former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak is promising fiscal prudence, while Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is offering immediate tax cuts to members of the right-wing governing party, which is divided and demoralized after three turbulent years under departing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Sunak and Truss were chosen Wednesday by Conservative lawmakers — whittled down from an initial field of 11 candidates —- as finalists to replace Johnson, who quit as party leader on July 7 after months of ethics scandals. He remains prime minister until his successor is chosen. The result of the party leadership contest is due on Sept. 5 and that person automatically becomes Britain's next prime minister.
Only about 180,000 Conservative Party members have a vote in choosing the country’s next leader. The rest of the U.K.’s 67 million people must watch the campaign from the sidelines, as the candidates spar in televised debates and party meetings — against a backdrop of soaring prices, growing climate extremes that broke U.K. temperature records this week and the war in Ukraine.
The winner of the Conservative contest will not have to face British voters until 2024, unless he or she chooses to call an early general election.
That doesn't mean they will have an easy time. Truss was surrounded Thursday as she left an event with local politicians in London by demonstrators protesting the culling of badgers to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis.
Oddsmakers say the favorite is Truss, who has led the U.K.’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is running as a low-tax, small-state conservative in the mold of Margaret Thatcher.
In interviews Thursday, Truss said she had the “toughness” and “grit” to lead the country in troubled times.
“We are in very difficult times. We need to be bold,” she told the BBC. “We cannot have business as usual for the challenge we face.”
Sunak, who steered Britain’s economy through the pandemic before quitting Johnson’s government this month, also claims to wear the mantle of Thatcher, whose free-market policies transformed Britain’s economy in the 1980s. Sunak argues it would be irresponsible to slash taxes before getting inflation under control. He won the vote among party lawmakers, but his previous role as Britain’s chief taxman may go down less well with the Tory grassroots.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Sunak said “low inflation and sound public finances” were needed as the foundation of the economy.
In a dig at Truss, lawmaker Robert Jenrick, a Sunak supporter, said “it is the antithesis of Thatcherism to be going around making unfunded tax pledges merely to win a leadership contest.”
Sunak also faces open hostility from allies of Johnson, who consider him a turncoat for quitting the government earlier this month, a move that helped bring down the prime minister.
Johnson clung to office through months of scandals over his finances and his judgment, refusing to resign when he was fined by police over government parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules. He finally quit after one scandal too many — appointing a politician accused of sexual misconduct — drove his ministers to resign en masse.
Both Truss and Sunak are aiming to distance themselves from the ethical swamp around Johnson, while persuading Tories they can match his election record, which delivered a landslide victory to the Conservatives in 2019.
Rhys Smithson, a Conservative local councilor from Colchester in eastern England, said he still remained undecided after listening to the two candidates on Thursday.
“Sunak is probably more grown up, but I would say Truss is more passionate,” he said. “Truss will appeal more to members, I think Sunak will appeal more to the electorate."
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