Two top ministers in his Cabinet will now square off to succeed ousted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss emerged as the finalists in a spirited contest that could bring new divisions for the ruling Conservative Party.
Mr. Sunak, the front-runner, and Ms. Truss will now face a vote of the Tory party faithful around the country, having survived a series of secret knockout votes by Conservative MPs in Parliament. Trades Minister Penny Mordaunt was eliminated in the latest vote Wednesday.
The winner of the party membership caucus, expected by the beginning of September, will immediately move into 10 Downing Street as the new prime minister. With a sizable ruling majority in Parliament, the government does not need to call another general election until the end of 2024.
But the race, in which nearly a dozen candidates entered the contest to succeed the scandal-plagued Mr. Johnson, has exposed divisions within the ruling party. Ms. Truss was one of a number of candidates who attacked Mr. Sunak’s position that Britain could not afford tax cuts at the moment as it dealt with soaring inflation and the possibility of a recession.
Ms. Truss, who strongly supports Brexit and vows to cut taxes and regulations, received 113 MP votes Wednesday, behind Mr. Sunak’s 137 votes, but ahead of Ms. Mordaunt at 105. But British political handicappers say much of Ms. Mordaunt’s supporters will likely gravitate toward the more conservative and confrontational Ms. Truss. It was Mr. Sunak’s decision to resign as chancellor of the exchequer earlier this month that helped convince the unpopular Mr. Johnson to step down.
Mr. Sunak, a 42-year-old former investment banker, whose parents are of Indian descent, stressed a message of electability in a video shortly after the results were announced. Despite its large majority, recent opinion polls say the economic downturn and Mr. Johnson’s ethical woes have left the Conservative Party trailing the opposition Labour Party, which is looking to return to power for the first time in a decade.
The question, Mr. Sunak said, is “who is the best candidate who can beat [Labour leader] Keir Starmer and the Labour Party in the next election? I believe I am the only candidate who can do that.”
Ms. Truss, 46, in her post-vote message made a direct appeal to the more conservative party base.
“I am excited to now take to the country to make the case to the Conservative Party about my bold new economic plan that will cut taxes, grow our economy and unleash the potential of everyone in our United Kingdom,” she said in a statement. “As prime minister, I would hit the ground running from day one, unite the party and govern in line with Conservative values.”