Contenders to succeed British Prime Minister Liz Truss canvassed for support Friday, with her predecessor Boris Johnson reportedly considering a sensational comeback as he picks up dozens of early nominations from Conservative MPs.
Truss’s announcement Thursday that she will resign after less than seven weeks in office has also prompted renewed calls from opposition parties for an early general election to end months of political chaos.
After her tax-slashing mini-budget last month sparked economic turmoil, two departures from her new cabinet and an eventual revolt by Tory lawmakers, Truss admitted she “cannot deliver the mandate” party members had handed her in the prior leadership contest.
British newspapers featured sombre images of Truss’s last speech outside the door of No. 10 Downing Street, with leftwing broadsheet The Guardian headlining its front page: “The bitter end”.
Truss only succeeded Johnson on September 6 after a weeks-long campaign against Tory rival Rishi Sunak, vowing a radical overhaul as Britons struggle with a cost-of-living crisis.
Having warned correctly of the disastrous consequences of her debt-fuelled tax promises, former finance minister Sunak has emerged as an early favourite to succeed Truss.
But the scandal-tarred Johnson may also be in the mix for a dramatic comeback bid, despite leaving Downing Street with dismal poll ratings.
“He couldn’t could he…” read the front page headline of the Tory-supporting Daily Express tabloid.
Conservative party managers announced a truncated election process, which requires candidates to garner 100 nominations from colleagues by Monday afternoon, ahead of another possible vote of members next Friday if two remain in the race.
So far there are no formal contenders, but the contest was widely expected to be a three-horse race between Sunak, Johnson and senior cabinet member Penny Mordaunt.
Political website Guido Fawkes, which is running a rolling spreadsheet of Tory MPs’ declared support, had Johnson on 52, Sunak on 47 and Mordaunt on 18 by early Friday.
Rightwing broadsheet The Daily Telegraph reported Johnson was set to fly back from a holiday in the Caribbean and was urging MPs to back him.
An ally told the paper that if the Tories want to avoid losing the next general election, “they need to revert” to Johnson as “the guy with a mandate who is a seasoned campaigner”.
There are precedents, The Telegraph wrote, with Harold Wilson and Winston Churchill both returning for a second stint after leaving office — albeit not mere weeks after being forced out.
Johnson in his final question time in parliament in July dropped a hint, saying: “hasta la vista baby”.
The Times reported some Tory MPs were threatening to quit the party if the divisive figure returned as leader, however.
Tory MP Crispin Blunt told the BBC that Johnson was a “fantastic communicator” but Sunak was “a much more serious personality” who could impart a “serious message” to the country.
Some senior figures including new finance minister Jeremy Hunt have already ruled themselves out, while others such as Defence Secretary Ben Wallace have remained silent.
Other candidates could include a representative of the party’s right such as Suella Braverman, whose resignation as interior minister Wednesday helped trigger Truss’s downfall.
– ‘Soap opera’ –
Contenders have until 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Monday to produce the minimum 100 nominations from their fellow Tory MPs.
That means a maximum of three candidates will emerge from among the 357 Conservatives in the House of Commons.
If necessary, they will vote to leave two candidates standing, and hold another “indicative” vote to tell the party membership their preferred option.
If no single candidates emerges, the rank-and-file will then have their say in an online ballot next week.
The Telegraph called the truncated process “sensible” in an editorial.
But for Labour and other opposition parties, the governing party is showing contempt towards the electorate.
Demanding an immediate general election, more than two years ahead of schedule, Labour leader Keir Starmer said Britain “cannot have another experiment”.
“This is not just a soap opera at the top of the Tory party — it’s doing huge damage to the reputation of our country,” he said as the Labour Party showed a runaway lead in the polls.
The Guardian backed an early general election, saying only this would “give the British people the fresh start that they need and deserve”.
But former Tory minister Nicky Morgan told Times Radio that a general election was “the last thing that the country needs”.