Sunak leads the race for the British leader; Johnson has yet to declare

LONDON — Britain’s former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak was the favorite on Sunday in the Conservative Party’s race to replace Liz Truss as prime minister, as he won the public backing of more than 100 Tory lawmakers to edge out his top two rivals – former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and ex-Minister Penny Mordaunt.

But widespread uncertainty remained after British media reported that Sunak held late-night talks with Johnson on Saturday, and speculation mounted that the pair could strike a deal to unite the fractured ruling party after being left behind reeling from Truss’ rapid fall.

The Conservative Party hastily ordered a contest that aims to finalize the nominations on Monday and install a new prime minister – its third this year – within a week.

Sunak, 42, confirmed on Sunday that he is running in the leadership race. He has the backing of at least 124 Tory lawmakers, according to unofficial counts from the BBC and Sky News. That’s well ahead of the 100 nominations required to qualify.

“There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels of government that I lead and I will work day in and day out to get the job done,” Sunak said in a statement.

Mordaunt has garnered public support from about 24 lawmakers, while Johnson, who has yet to say whether he will run, has about 50 so far. Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told the BBC on Sunday he had spoken to Johnson and “he will clearly stand on his feet” after Johnson returned to London on Saturday from his vacation in the Dominican Republic.

A potential return to power for Johnson, 58, who was forced out of office just weeks ago by a series of ethics scandals, has deeply divided conservatives and thrown unpredictability into the race. Supporters say he is a winner in the vote and has enough support from lawmakers, but many critics warn that another Johnson government would spell disaster for the party and the country.

Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker, a former Johnson supporter and influential Conservative Party politician, has warned a Johnson return would be ‘guaranteed disaster’ as he is still under investigation to find out if he lied to parliament while in office, which could lead to his suspension as a lawmaker.

“Now is not the time for Boris and his style,” Baker told Sky News on Sunday. “What we can’t do is have him as prime minister in circumstances where he’s doomed to implode, bringing down the whole government…and we just can’t do it again.”

But Johnson has won support from several senior Tories, including Nadhim Zahawi, another former Treasury chief.

“He was contrite and honest about his mistakes. He had learned from those mistakes how he could lead No.10 and the country better,” Zahawi said.

Truss resigned Thursday after 45 turbulent days, admitting she could not implement her botched economic tax-cutting program, which she was forced to abandon after sparking fury within her party and weeks of financial market turbulence.

Sunak, who served as Treasury chief from 2020 until this summer, led the collapse of Britain’s economy during the coronavirus pandemic. He resigned in July to protest Johnson’s leadership. In the contest to replace Johnson, Sunak argued that rising inflation must first be brought under control, and called promises by Truss and other rivals to cut taxes immediately “fairy tales”.

Conservative voters backed Truss over Sunak, but he was proven right when Truss’ unfunded tax-cut economic stimulus package unleashed market chaos in September.

Dozens of Britain’s 357 Conservative lawmakers have yet to publicly say who they support to replace Truss.

Mordaunt and Johnson – if he confirms he is running – have until Monday afternoon to collect 100 nominations. If all three reach that threshold, lawmakers will vote to eliminate one, then hold an indicative vote on the bottom two. The 172,000 party members will then be able to decide between the two finalists in an online vote. The new leader must be chosen by Friday.