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Explainer: Who will replace Boris Johnson as prime minister?

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·6-min read
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LONDON — The race for the next prime minister of Britain has commenced, with several of Boris Johnson’s former Cabinet ministers having already tossed their hats into the ring.

Johnson announced his resignation last week after endless scandals and political U-turns caused members of his Cabinet to abandon him. Fifty-nine Conservative politicians, including junior ministers and aides, quit in just two days, forcing him out of office — despite consistent promises from Johnson that he would “fight on.”

Boris Johnson
Embattled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the media last week, shortly before his resignation. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

But it was reportedly when Johnson met with the chairman of the 1922 Committee, a group of 18 Conservative politicians who do not hold positions in government, that he agreed to step down. The powerful parliamentary group oversees the party’s decisions and has in the past ousted Conservative leaders.

It will be up to the Conservative members of Parliament to decide who is the next leader of the party through a series of votes. This is unlike a general election, in which the public decides which MPs lead their local areas, known as constituencies; the party with the majority wins the election, and its leader becomes prime minister.

As Johnson resigned from his position rather than being ousted by a vote of no confidence, the Conservative Party chooses its new leader and continues to lead the country until the next election. The opposition party, Labour, has no say in who will take the party’s top position.

Who is in the running for prime minister?

Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak, former chancellor of the exchequer, initiated his campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party on Tuesday. (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Popular among his party and the public in his first year as chancellor of the exchequer, the British equivalent to secretary of the treasury, Sunak has long been predicted as Johnson’s successor. However, his popularity has been dented by reports that he was a “multimillionaire in his mid-twenties” and that his father-in-law's reported net worth is £3.5 billion, as well as a slew of scandals related to Johnson, such as attending a party during a COVID lockdown.

Sunak was the second minister to leave Johnson’s Cabinet, posting his letter of resignation on Twitter minutes after his colleague Sajid Javid uploaded his. Just three days after quitting, the 42-year-old former chancellor launched his campaign, “Ready for Rishi.” According to reports, the website domain readyforrishi.com had been registered six months before Johnson resigned. Sunak's team has denied it was originally their domain, saying it was created by other people.

Sunak came under fire when earlier this year it was revealed that his wife had claimed non-domicile status on her tax forms, which meant she saved millions of pounds on tax dividends she had collected from her family’s information technology business in India.

Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, who would have become prime minister if Johnson had stood down immediately, endorsed Sunak, suggesting that he would “make things happen.” “Rishi’s values are our values, and he’s always had the courage of his convictions,” Raab said on Tuesday.

During his first campaign interview, Sunak said he plans to cut taxes — taxes he had implemented as Johnson’s chancellor. He then compared himself to Margaret Thatcher, a former Conservative prime minister who reduced the power of trade unions and privatized state companies.

If he wins, Sunak will be the first person of color and of Indian origin to become prime minister.

Penny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt
Penny Mordaunt at Wednesday's launch of her campaign to be Conservative Party leader and prime minister. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)

Mordaunt is the first woman to have served as Britain’s defense secretary, and she is currently its first female trade minister. She is considered the dark horse of the Conservative leadership race, having kept a low profile while serving in her Cabinet positions.

Days before she announced her bid, Mordaunt, 49, caused controversy on Twitter when she posted a thread about what a biological woman was, upsetting many in the LGTBQ community. “I am biologically a woman,” she began. “If I have a hysterectomy or mastectomy, I am still a woman. And I am legally a woman. Some people born male and who have been through the gender recognition process are also legally female. That DOES NOT mean they are biological women, like me.”

Liz Truss

Liz Truss
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has also put herself forward to become the next prime minister. Similar to other candidates, Truss, 46, has said she would cut taxes, including corporation taxes.

"It isn't right to be putting up taxes now," she told the Telegraph. "I would reverse the national insurance increase that came in during April, make sure we keep corporation tax competitive so we can attract business and investment into Britain, and put the COVID debt on a longer-term footing.”

Johnson’s press secretary was forced to deny creating a smear campaign against Sunak, though his allies Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries have shown their support for Truss. “He’s staying neutral in this contest,” Johnson’s spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Others in the race to become prime minister are former Leveling Up Minister Kemi Badenoch, Johnson critic and military veteran Tom Tugendhat and Attorney General Suella Braverman. Braverman, like Sunak, would be the first prime minister of Indian ancestry.

How will they be chosen?

The 1922 Committee announces the results of the first ballot round in the Conservative Party leadership contest
The 1922 Committee announces the results of the first ballot round in the Conservative Party leadership contest. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, MPs voted in the first round of the leadership contest. Candidates needed to secure the backing of at least 30 MPs. Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Rehman Chishti dropped out of the running after they failed to get 20 nominations. Newly appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt lost Wednesday’s vote, becoming the first two to be removed from the contest.

The second vote will take place on Thursday and will continue until just two MPs are left. Then the two Conservative politicians will go face-to-face in a vote that decides who is the next prime minister.

​​Who is the most popular?

Sunak topped the Conservative contest on Wednesday with 88 votes, followed by Mordaunt with 67.

According to a poll of Conservative Party members conducted by the market research company YouGov, Mordaunt is by far the most popular candidate.

When will the next leader be announced?

The next leader of the U.K. will be announced by Sept. 5, when the British Parliament returns from summer break.

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