LONDON — The next prime minister of Britain and leader of the Conservative Party is now guaranteed to be an ethnic minority or a woman, after Tory lawmakers on Wednesday selected two finalists — former finance minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — with a winner to be announced in September.
While Boris Johnson continues as a kind of happy-go-lucky caretaker prime minister, the race to replace him will now go before the 200,000 or so dues-paying Conservative Party members, who will select, via mail-in ballot, Johnson’s successor.
Most of Britain is sitting on the sidelines for all of this. There will be no general election to pick the new prime minister, and although a televised debate is scheduled for Monday, many of the “hustings” events will be off the record or closed to press.
The matchup between Sunak and Truss offers Tory voters a choice between a man who says he is the only adult in the race and a woman who says she is the only one who has shown true leadership.
The two contenders are both conservative, and to the outside world, their political differences are subtle.
Truss, 46, supports a bunch of tax cuts.
Sunak, 42, says that her plan is “fantasy island” economics and that Britain must first get inflation under control.
The taxes of Sunak’s own family are a bit of a sore point. And earlier this year it looked like his aspirations for higher office might be over after reports that his wife had avoided millions in taxes on her foreign earnings.
Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs heavy, married really rich. Akshata Murty, whom he met at Stanford, is the daughter of N.R. Narayana Murthy, the Indian billionaire who founded Infosys. The couple made the Sunday Times list of Britain’s wealthiest 250 people, with a joint fortune estimated at 730 million pounds, or about $875 million.
Their family moved out of the chancellor of the exchequer’s official residence amid the tax controversy in April. But Sunak stayed on as the country’s finance minister — until his strident resignation this month launched the revolt against Johnson.
Truss didn’t speak out against Johnson until it was clear the tide had turned.
She is Britain’s first Tory female foreign secretary, who — in an echo of Hillary Clinton — says she is ready to run the country “from day one.”
If she won, it would be the third time that the Conservative Party put a woman in the country’s highest office, following the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.
Truss has won praise for her support of Ukraine — and has been a target of criticism from Russia.
Although she opposed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, she has since said she regrets that vote, and 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. She is a passionate free-marketer.
Sunak was the front-runner through the first, parliamentary stage of the contest, winning every round. Now, though, as the two finalists make their pitches to activists, polling suggests he is the underdog. A YouGov poll of Conservative members published Tuesday found that Sunak would lose to Truss. She is also the bookies’ favorite.
But pundits say the race remains unpredictable. The Telegraph newspaper, which is closely aligned with the Tories, warned that this leadership contest would be the “nastiest” in party history. In a televised debate last weekend, the candidates tore chunks out of each other.
“Liz, in your past you’ve been both a Liberal Democrat and a Remainer,” Sunak said to Truss at one point. “I was just wondering which one you regretted most?”
Truss said that she wasn’t “born into the Conservative Party” — that her parents were “left-wing activists and I’ve been on a political journey ever since.” She added that she became a Conservative after seeing “kids at my school being let down.” Unlike Sunak, she did not go to an expensive boarding school.
The two will spend the summer — at golf course luncheons, conference centers, discreet gatherings with donors — making their pitches.
Meanwhile, Johnson will be bidding a long goodbye. On Wednesday, he said farewell to the House of Commons — and to his fellow lawmakers who gave him the boot: “I want to thank everybody here, and hasta la vista, baby!”
Seriously, those were his final words — borrowing the catchphrase popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film “Terminator 2.”
Riffing on President George W. Bush’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq, Johnson declared his legacy: “Mission largely accomplished.”
Was it fitting? Was it glib? Was it … genius? Johnson, a serial blusterer who relishes the role of entertaining after-dinner speaker, won the heart of his party and the country with such lines.
And don’t forget, Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, not once but twice.
Johnson is on the way out. But many in the halls of Westminster anticipate that he could someday make a comeback.
It was not a somber farewell from him Wednesday, but all surface, all talking points, all greatest hits, delivered with fist pumps and the prime minister’s trademark runaway high-speed elocution.
The House of Commons was packed — and roaring, filled with the usual insults and point-scoring, as is typical in the weekly session known as Prime Minister’s Questions, a gladiatorial contest for debaters who graduated from Oxford and Cambridge.
There was braying, there was harrumphing, there was “chuntering from a sedentary position,” as a legendary speaker of the House once called it.
Johnson stood in the prime minister’s spot at the “despatch box” for what he called “probably, certainly” his last verbal battering.
At the end of his remarks, he gave this advice to his successor:
“Stay close to the Americans, stick up for the Ukrainians, stick up for freedom and democracy everywhere.”
And also: “Cut taxes and deregulate wherever you can to make this the greatest place to live and invest.”
“Focus on the road ahead but always remember to check the rearview mirror,” the prime minister said.
“And remember, above all, it’s not Twitter that counts. It’s the people that sent us here,” he closed.