Penny Mordaunt enters UK PM race as Boris Johnson eyes comeback in top post

Published on Oct 21, 2022 09:57 PM IST

Cabinet member Penny Mordaunt became the first to formally declare her candidacy, after the UK's ruling party was forced into its second leadership contest in weeks.

Britain's Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt. (REUTERS/Toby Melville)
Britain's Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt. (REUTERS/Toby Melville)
AFP | | Posted by Sharangee Dutta

Britain's divisive former leader Boris Johnson on Friday received heavyweight Conservative backing to stage a sensational comeback following the resignation of Prime Minister Liz Truss.

Cabinet member Penny Mordaunt became the first to formally declare her candidacy, after the UK's ruling party was forced into its second leadership contest in weeks.

Mordaunt, who just missed out on making the final runoff after Johnson quit, said she was running for "a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest".

Truss announced Thursday she was quitting after just 44 tempestuous days in office.

A poll by YouGov found 79 percent of British people thought she was right to resign, with 64 percent calling her a "terrible" prime minister.

The pollster also found that three in five voters want an early general election, in line with the angry clamour coming from opposition parties as Britons struggle with a worsening cost-of-living crisis.

Labour and other parties argue only an election can end the months of political chaos, sparked when Johnson was himself forced out in July after non-stop personal and political scandal.

In the resultant contest, Truss won the support of just over 80,000 Tory party members, defeating Rishi Sunak, who correctly warned that her hard-right programme of debt-fuelled tax cuts would crash the economy.

Now with a new vacancy suddenly opening up in 10 Downing Street, the former finance minister has emerged as favourite in media straw polls of Conservative MPs.

But Johnson was reportedly cutting short a Caribbean holiday to take part in the accelerated contest, which will see Tory MPs hold a vote on Monday before a possible online ballot for the members next week.

Serious times

Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch Johnson loyalist, became the first minister to publicly back him, tweeting: "Only Boris can win the next election."

Cabinet colleague Simon Clarke also endorsed Johnson.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a favourite of the Tory grassroots, told reporters he was not standing himself and said: "At the moment, I'm leaning towards Boris Johnson."

Wallace noted that Johnson was the only potential leader with UK-wide electoral legitimacy, having won a thumping victory for the Tories over Labour in 2019.

But the minister added that Johnson still had "some questions to answer" over the multiple scandals, which resulted in a yet-to-launch investigation in the House of Commons.

If found guilty of lying to the Commons over the "Partygate" scandal -- lockdown-breaching revels held in Downing Street -- Johnson could be suspended or even expelled from parliament.

The investigating committee is sitting on "damning new evidence" that would doom any new Johnson premiership, ITV News reported.

Thanks to such controversies, Johnson left Number 10 with dismal poll ratings. One poll found that the word most commonly associated with him for voters was "liar".

Other Tories were aghast at the prospect of his comeback. Veteran backbencher Roger Gale warned that Johnson could face a wave of resignations from MPs refusing to serve under him as leader.

Crispin Blunt MP 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.

Jesse Norman, a minister in the Foreign Office, said choosing Johnson again would be "an absolutely catastrophic decision".

Soap opera

While Sunak and Johnson are yet to formally declare, the contest is widely expected to be a three-way race between them and Mordaunt, who is the cabinet minister in charge of the House of Commons.

Contenders have until 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Monday to produce a minimum 100 nominations from their fellow Tory MPs.

That means a maximum of three candidates will emerge from among the 357 Conservatives in the 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 candidate emerges, the rank-and-file will then have their say in an online ballot and the result will be announced next Friday.

Political website Guido Fawkes, which is running a rolling spreadsheet of Tory MPs' declared support, had Sunak on 73, Johnson on 61 and Mordaunt on 21 by Friday afternoon.

The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Keir Starmer, said Britain "cannot have another experiment" after Truss's disastrous tenure.

"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.

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