UK prime minister is frontrunner after Liz Truss resigns

LONDON – Former finance minister Rishi Sunak was on the verge of completing a political comeback Monday, as his campaign claimed he was way out in front of Penny Mordaunt to be crowned prime minister by Britain’s ruling Conservative Party.

Sunak, 42, a former banker who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer – finance minister – in Boris Johnson’s government, secured the backing of at least 100 Conservative lawmakers, the required threshold to take part in an internal party contest to select Britain’s fifth prime minister in six years. Mordaunt, 49, has until 2 p.m. (9 a.m. ET) to reach that level of support.

Fewer than 30 lawmakers have publicly backed her. Almost 190 lawmakers have publicly backed Sunak.

The contest comes in the wake of Liz Truss‘s resignation on Oct. 20. Her brief tenure in office was the shortest ever for a British prime minister and was marked by economic turmoil. British voters elect a party, not a specific leader, meaning the ruling party has latitude to change a prime minister without calling an election.

Liz Truss last 45 days in prime minister’s office:Here’s why she resigned

Britain's former chancellor to the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, reacts as he answers questions while taking part in a Conservative Party campaign event in Birmingham, on Aug. 23, 2022.

Johnson pulled out of the contest to replace Truss late Sunday after signaling for several days that he was mounting a dramatic return to Downing Street after his own resignation in July. He ended his nearly three-year, scandal-laden premiership amid a wave of resignations from his cabinet over allegations he broke his own coronavirus lockdown rules by holding a series of social events, and amid dissent over his handling of harassment claims made against a Conservative lawmaker.

If Sunak is confirmed as prime minister, he would be Britain’s third leader is less than two months. He would also be Britain’s first Hindu prime minister, and the country’s first leader of color. Mordaunt is a former defense and trade minister whom Truss appointed leader of the House of Commons. She was a prominent backer of Brexit.

Britain's Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt smiles as she leaves the BBC studios in central London on Oct. 23, 2022.

Still, the process to chose Britain’s new prime minister may not end Monday.

If Mordaunt reaches the required 100 threshold, then lawmakers later Monday will hold what is called an “indicative” or preference vote. If neither Sunak nor Mordaunt steps down after this nonbinding vote, then grassroots members of the party, not lawmakers, will vote to decide who wins. This process would be completed by Friday.

It was grassroots party members who selected Truss.

Truss was the fourth British prime minister to resign since the country’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union. Brexit, an economic and legal divorce, has ushered in unprecedented political division and chaos in a nation that is typically revered for being a model of stable and dependable governance. The Bank of England, Britain’s central bank, was forced to buy government bonds known as “gilts” after Truss unveiled a series of aggressive tax cuts days after taking office. The pound currency plummeted.

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