What to know about Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, finalists to be U.K. prime minister

A streetlight illuminates the door of Number 10 Downing Street in central London on July 6. (Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — The contest to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and British prime minister is down to two finalists: Former chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

Sunak had a strong showing in the first stage of the race, emerging on top in each round of balloting among Conservative members of Parliament. But now the choice goes to grass-roots members of the party, and polls suggest Truss may be the preference among that set.

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The two are now making their case to party members, taking part in televised debates and “hustings” events across the country. Conservatives have until Sept. 2 to return their ballots by mail or vote online, with the winner to be announced on Sept. 5 — and installed at 10 Downing Street soon after.

Here’s what to know about the two finalists.

Rishi Sunak

Sunak, 42, helped start the revolt against Johnson when he resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer — the U.K.'s finance minister.

He has tried to position himself as the responsible “grown-up” in the leadership contest. He says he wants to focus on getting inflation under control. Only, then, he says, can you talk about tax cuts. He has criticized Truss for “the fantasy economics of unfunded promises.”

The taxes of Sunak’s own family are a bit of a sore point. Earlier this year, it looked like his aspirations for higher office might be over after reports that his billionaire heiress wife had avoided millions in taxes. Sunak was also implicated in the “Partygate” scandal and fined by police for attending one of the government gatherings that violated pandemic lockdown rules.

He seems to have mostly recovered from those episodes — though no one in this contest has been even close to as popular as Johnson once was.

Born in Britain to Indian parents, Sunak focused in his leadership campaign video on his family’s immigrant roots.

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Truss and her supporters have sought to play up his elite upbringing. He attended the exclusive Winchester private school before studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and earning an MBA at Stanford University. He worked as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs and as a hedge fund manager. His critics have been circulating a video clip from a 2007 BBC documentary in which he suggests he doesn’t have any “working-class friends.”

Liz Truss

Truss, 46, is Britain’s first Tory female foreign secretary. She has generally won applause in Britain for her handling of the Ukraine war — and has been a target of criticism from Russia.

If she wins, she would be Britain’s third female prime minister — all of them from the Conservative Party. Although it is Sunak who has claimed to be the heir to Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, Truss has elicited comparisons, too. When she showed up at a televised leadership debate wearing a black jacket and white pussy-bow blouse that looked uncannily like Thatcher’s outfit during a 1979 election broadcast, social media brimmed with side-by-side images. Truss asserted: “I am my own person.” But she also talks about how she admires Thatcher’s boldness — especially her willingness to “challenge the groupthink” on the economy. Truss wants voters to think of her and her economic plan as bold, too. She has pledged to slash $36 billion in taxes, to be paid for through borrowing.

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Truss entered Parliament in 2010 and previously served as minister for women and equalities, as well as working in the ministries overseeing education, the environment and justice. She has been a foot soldier in the “war against woke” attitudes about race, gender and sexuality.

Sunak and his supporters have tried to portray Truss as lacking conviction. She was a somewhat of a latecomer to the Conservative Party, having grown up in a left-wing family. Truss also opposed the Brexit referendum in 2016, but has since said she regrets that vote. She has been a prominent voice for the argument that Britain needs to rewrite the provisions on Northern Ireland in its post-Brexit trade agreement. As prime minister, she probably wouldn’t offer the European Union the improved relationship for which its leaders are hoping.

Adela Suliman and Annabelle Timsit in London and Adam Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.