The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Race for U.K. prime minister is on (again) after Liz Truss quits

Commuters are reflected in a puddle with the Elizabeth Tower in the background following a rain shower in London on Thursday. (Alastair Grant/AP)
7 min

LONDON — After a chaotic spell packed with political crises, Britain finds itself right back where it was before — with some of the same faces competing to become the country’s third prime minister in just eight weeks, and a dumbfounded public watching from the sidelines.

Supporters of the three presumed front-runners — Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and, yes, Boris Johnson — were quick out of the blocks Friday, making their pitches for why their person should get the keys to 10 Downing Street, the prime ministerial residence.

Could Johnson stage an extraordinary political comeback? Rumors are swirling that Johnson, who was the 55th British prime minister, might also want to be its 57th. There’s an active Bring Back Boris movement and a hashtag, #BorisorBust. Johnson was on a Caribbean vacation when Liz Truss announced her resignation Thursday. His ally James Duddridge told the Press Association that he was flying back with the notion: “We are going to do this. I’m up for it.”

The bookies’ favorite is Sunak, the former finance minister who fell to Truss in the last leadership contest. Sunak was prescient in calling the Truss plan to slash taxes and increase debt “fantasy island” economics.

How Liz Truss became the shortest-serving prime minister in U.K. history

The only formally declared candidate as of Friday evening, though, was Mordaunt, the Tory leader in the House of Commons who is little known by the public but polls well with Conservative Party members.

“I’ve been encouraged by support from colleagues who want a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest,” Mordaunt tweeted.

Most of the action is happening behind the scenes. “Everything will be going on on the phones, in the WhatsApp groups, behind closed doors as people try to make sure they secure enough nominations,” said Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a think tank.

The party has set an astonishingly short time frame to select a new leader and plans to have the contest wrapped up in a week. Candidates have until 2 p.m. Monday to get the singular backing of at least 100 Conservative lawmakers among the 357 in Parliament.

If only one person clears that threshold, that’s it: The Tories have a new leader, to be installed as leader of the country. If two or three candidates qualify, the finalists will be determined through rounds of voting among Conservative Party lawmakers and then put to an online vote among the 170,000 dues-paying members of the party on Oct. 28.

On Friday, Sunak was leading in the count of publicly declared backers, according to a tally by the BBC. Conservative Party lawmaker Tobias Ellwood announced on Twitter that he was the 100th member to support Sunak’s candidacy — but the BBC’s official tally did not yet have Sunak crossing the threshold.

While he has been notably quiet, he hasn’t ruled himself out, and his Ready for Rishi team members rapidly revived their operation. They point out that he received the most support from his colleagues in the last contest and say that many of his economic ideas turned out to be spot-on.

Dominic Raab, the former deputy prime minister under Johnson, who stood in for his former boss when he was hospitalized with covid-19, is among those backing Sunak. So is Johnson’s former health secretary, Sajid Javid, who tweeted that Sunak “has what it takes to match the challenges.”

Johnson’s supporters, meanwhile, want him to return from his plow — like the classical-era hero Cincinnatus brought back to deal with a crisis, whom Johnson referenced in his resignation speech.

In his final speech, Boris Johnson compared himself to Cincinnatus. Who?

Those in the Bring Back Boris camp argue that Johnson is the only contender who has a national “mandate” to lead after his whopping 2019 general-election win.

“One person was elected by the British public with a manifesto and a mandate until January ‘25. If Liz Truss is no longer PM there can be no coronation of previously failed candidates,” tweeted Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist.

Johnson is the top pick among the 170,000 Conservative Party members, according to polls. But it is not certain if a rebooted Johnson could galvanize the party — or improve its standing with the broader electorate. After all, Johnson was forced to resign after a string of scandals raised questions about his honesty and when his own Conservative lawmakers concluded he was unfit to lead.

It was under Johnson’s leadership that the Conservatives, at the start of the year, started slipping behind the opposition Labour Party in the polls for the first time in years.

He is also still under investigation by the House of Commons for misleading lawmakers over “Partygate,” and he could be suspended from Parliament.

Tory lawmaker David Davis told LBC Radio that Johnson “should go back to the beach.” Former Conservative lawmaker Rory Stewart, who is popular among moderates, tweeted, “Only a nation which was gripped by pessimistic despair and no longer believed that there could be a serious response to its unfolding tragedies would want to take refuge in the leadership of a clown.”

Rutter wondered if Johnson might not officially declare his candidacy if he saw he was falling short on endorsements. “If he was struggling to get to 100, would he want it to be known that he even tried? Or would he simply say: ‘Oh, that was all my supporters doing that. I’m extremely happy spending shed loads of money cutting short my holiday in the Caribbean.’”

Ben Wallace, the popular defense secretary whom some saw as a contender, ruled himself out of the race Friday, saying he was “leaning” toward Johnson.

Ukraine’s government, for its part, also seemed to champion a Johnson return. The government’s official Twitter account posted a meme — later deleted — with the caption “Better Call Boris” next to Johnson’s picture on a poster from the Netflix series “Better Call Saul.”

Although a new leader may bring political shifts, Britain’s support for Ukraine is not expected to be disrupted.

Mordaunt is the dark horse in the race. But her PM4PM supporters note that she is more popular with Conservative Party members than Sunak is.

She’s not well known among the broader public — in one survey, most respondents could not name her when shown her photo. But her visibility received a boost in the waning days of Truss’s tenure, when she stood in for the prime minister in Parliament.

Perhaps her most memorable line was: “The prime minister is not under a desk.” But she ably handled hostile questions and showcased her parliamentary sparring skills.

Penny Mordaunt could be the next U.K. prime minister. Few know who she is.

Outside the Conservative bubble, there are calls for a general election.

Some argue that this method of picking a prime minister is undemocratic. The new leader will be selected by parliamentary insiders, or, if it does go to the Conservative Party membership, then 170,000 people — less than 0.3 percent of the country.

But because the Tories, led by Johnson, won the general election in 2019, the deadline for the next general election isn’t until January 2025. And given how far they are down in opinion polls, they are unlikely to call for an early election that might result in their annihilation.