Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss Will Compete to Replace Boris Johnson

LONDON — Britain’s Conservative lawmakers settled on their choices to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, advancing two candidates who worked for Mr. Johnson to replace a leader whose scandal-scarred tenure ended with his government in disarray, at a time of deepening economic crisis.

Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, emerged as the finalists after five rounds of voting whittled the original field of 11. They will now compete in a vote of the party’s rank-and-file membership, with the results announced in early September.

Ms. Truss edged out Penny Mordaunt, a little-known junior minister who mounted an unexpectedly vigorous campaign, promoting herself as a breath of fresh air after three turbulent years under Mr. Johnson. Ms. Mordaunt was eliminated after winning 105 votes, while Ms. Truss had 113 and Mr. Sunak 137.

Both are likely to face questions from a Conservative electorate that once savored Mr. Johnson’s shambling style and gleeful disregard of the rules, but had recently grown frustrated with his zigzagging policies and the seemingly endless parade of scandals in his government.

Despite its continuity, the leadership contest has managed to capture both the Conservative Party’s rich diversity and its raw divisions.

Mr. Sunak, a 42-year-old former investment banker of South Asian ancestry, would become the first person of color to occupy 10 Downing Street. He voted in favor of Britain’s exit from the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Ms. Truss, a 46-year-old who once worked for Shell and began her political life as a Liberal Democrat, voted to remain in the E.U. but has since become a fervent convert to Brexit.

These different Brexit pedigrees are likely to figure in the campaign, given the lingering role that the 2016 vote still plays in the Conservative Party. While both candidates will be eager to turn the page and focus on the future, they may be forced to re-litigate the past, starting with their relationship to their discredited predecessor.

Mr. Johnson made a defiant, self-congratulatory final appearance in Parliament on Wednesday, taking credit for winning the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, for getting Brexit done, and for steadfastly supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia.

“Hasta la vista, baby!” he said to lawmakers, borrowing a familiar farewell from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also famously said, “I’ll be back.”

How successfully Mr. Sunak and Ms. Truss escape Mr. Johnson’s shadow may determine their success in the next six weeks of campaigning. That could pose a bigger challenge to Ms. Truss, who sat alongside Mr. Johnson in the House of Commons on Wednesday and has stayed in his cabinet when several others, including Mr. Sunak, quit.

Mr. Sunak will likely present himself as a responsible steward of the nation’s finances during a period of extreme stress, with surging inflation and the specter of recession. His victory caps a remarkable comeback from last spring when his political career appeared finished following the disclosure that his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire, did not pay taxes on all her income in Britain.

So far, analysts said, Mr. Sunak has conducted a smooth, disciplined campaign, refusing to be drawn out on policy details and giving journalists few openings to investigate him. Ms. Truss’ campaign has gotten off to a shakier start, though she has gained momentum. On Wednesday, after her victory, she posted on Twitter that she was ready “to hit the ground from day one,” forgetting to add “running.”

Ms. Truss will be viewed as the candidate of hard-line Brexiteers, pursuing aggressive negotiations with the European Union over trade in Northern Ireland. Critics say she undermined the talks with Brussels to pander to the Brexiteer wing of the party, and now risks triggering a trade war.

She will also likely play up her hard-power credentials as foreign secretary during the war in Ukraine. At a recent televised debate, Ms. Truss was the only candidate to say she would be willing to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at a meeting of the Group of 20 industrial countries in November — positioning herself as an adversary who would get tough with the Russian leader for his aggressions.

“It is very important that we have the voices of the free world facing down Vladimir Putin,” Ms. Truss said. “I was prepared to face down Sergey Lavrov,” she added, referring to the Russian foreign minister. She said she would call out Mr. Putin “in front of those very important swing countries like India and Indonesia.”

Ms. Truss, some analysts say, has been waging a not-so-subtle campaign for Mr. Johnson’s job for months, despite her public protestations of loyalty. During a visit to British troops in Estonia last November, she posed in military gear atop a tank. Commentators said she looked like she was channeling Mrs. Thatcher, never a bad idea in a Tory leadership race.

Despite Mr. Sunak’s significant lead among Conservative lawmakers in Wednesday’s ballot, Ms. Truss is the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the next phase of the contest, when the two contenders must hustle for the votes of party members, who are thought to number around 160,000 people.

Mr. Sunak has his share of liabilities: His extreme personal wealth could alienate voters at a time of growing pressure on their own finances. Critics claim that the tax increases he introduced in the Johnson government risk plunging the country into recession. He contends that sound public finances are vital to control inflation after the government spending splurge during the pandemic.

Mr. Sunak might also suffer from the role he played in helping to oust Mr. Johnson. Many party members retain an affection for the prime minister, despite the recent scandals and are grateful for the landslide victory he delivered in 2019. They might be reluctant to replace him with a former ally who turned against him.

Mr. Johnson has suggested that his own lawmakers made an irrational decision in pushing him out, and some of his closest allies have made no secret of their antipathy toward Mr. Sunak. One of them, Jacob Rees-Mogg, pointedly refused to deny that he had characterized Mr. Sunak’s tax policy as “socialist” during a cabinet meeting.

Speaking for the opposition Labour Party, Conor McGinn, a senior lawmaker, described the contenders as “two continuity candidates,” and added, “Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are stooges of the Johnson administration whose fingerprints are all over the state the country finds itself in today.”

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