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UK Conservative leadership: The candidates vying to replace Boris Johnson

LONDON — With Boris Johnson about to exit stage right, Tory party heavy hitters are scrapping for the lead role.

From Cabinet big beasts to surprise entrants, POLITICO runs you through the crowded field of candidates to be Conservative Party leader — and U.K. prime minister.

Rishi Sunak

The former chancellor, whose resignation helped end Johnson’s time at the top, has bounced back after a row over his wife’s tax affairs delivered a big blow to his reputation.

Campaigning under the slogan ‘Ready for Rishi,’ Sunak has talked up his experience running the U.K.’s top finance department, accused his rivals of promising unrealistic tax cuts. He’s also made his own backstory a key part of his pitch.

In a campaign video, Sunak related how his grandmother came to the U.K. from India in the 1960s, and presented himself as a responsible pair of hands at a time of growing economic uncertainty, along with a core message of “patriotism, fairness [and] hard work.”

His youth — he’s 42 — is seen both as a pro and a con. His supporters include former chief whip Mark Spencer and ex-Cabinet minister Liam Fox, but he has come under fire from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker on the right of the party over taxation policies.

Sunak held the second-highest-ranking job in government, in which he tried to keep public spending and taxes low despite sustained pressure from Johnson to splurge cash in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But “Dishy Rishi” — as he’s been nicknamed for his slick personal brand stamped on major Treasury announcements — may need to persuade fellow Tories that he’s got sufficient political experience. Some believe he needs to spend more time in other government departments before rising to the very top.

Although he supports Brexit, he reportedly opposed calls by David Frost, Britain’s former chief Brexit negotiator, to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol last November and expressed concerns about the government’s current unilateral plan to switch off parts of it, amid fears it could plunge Britain into a trade war with the EU at a time of huge economic uncertainty.

But he’s also said the protocol is causing economic and political harm and needs fixing.

Penny Mordaunt

One to watch. The trade minister and former defense secretary is polling well clear of her rivals when it comes to Conservative Party members, who will ultimately pick their leader once MPs have whittled down the list.

Mordaunt is well-liked among MPs in northern England — the area known as the Red Wall which switched from Labour to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. She has a long association with the military and has lived in the naval city of Portsmouth, where she is MP, since she was two years old.

Mordaunt is an avowed Brexiteer who accused the EU of “pushing its regulatory system on the rest of the world” and described Britain’s exit as “a massive opportunity.”

She has been praised for her support for the LGBTQ+ community and became the first minister to use sign language at the dispatch box, although raised eyebrows in Westminster with what LGBT news outlet Pink News described as a “crude, anti-trans” jibe at her leadership launch.

More recently, she’s opposed Sunak’s decision to raise National Insurance and corporation tax.

Mordaunt’s main claim to fame in the early days of her career was the time she donned a swimsuit and leapt into the water on television diving show Splash! She also earned a telling off for making a spoof speech in the Commons in which she repeatedly used a number of slang sexual terms (“cock”, “lay” and “laid”) during a debate on poultry welfare. She apparently did it for a bet.

Liz Truss

The foreign secretary is a favorite among the Tory grassroots but will have to work hard to win the support of the parliamentary party.

Truss backed remaining in the EU at the 2016 referendum, though she’s long been a Euroskeptic.

Her rise to prime minister would probably prolong the chill that has characterized British-EU relations since Brexit. She’s the minister responsible for the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which Brussels opposes.

Truss started preparing for a leadership bid months ago, with an aggressive social media campaign and a growing closeness to hardline Brexiteers in the Tory party.

The daughter of left-wing parents, Truss comes from the libertarian wing of the Conservatives. She’s an experienced Cabinet member after leading Britain’s international trade, justice, and environmental policies. In this role, she declared that she fully believed that climate change is happening and humans have contributed to it.

Nadhim Zahawi

Appointed chancellor after Sunak’s dramatic resignation, Zahawi has been credited with the success of the U.K.’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out and is flaunting his credentials as a self-made business man.

Born in Baghdad, he moved to Britain in the mid-1970s with his Kurdish family fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 2000, he co-founded polling company YouGov which he led until February 2010, the year when he was elected MP for Stratford-on-Avon.

Reportedly one of the wealthiest lawmakers in the Westminster parliament, Zahawi’s challenges will include handling questions over his own financial background. An investigation into his finances has reportedly been carried out by the National Crime Agency, although Zahawi has said such reporting on his wealth amounts to “smears.”

He’s pledged a review of tax policies with a view to slashing levies, and it was revealed he had spent months working with famed Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby on a leadership bid. Zahawi has said he’d be willing to appoint Johnson to his Cabinet if he wins the top job.

Tom Tugendhat

The House of Commons foreign affairs committee chairman, who hails from the One Nation caucus of centrist Tories, is billing himself as “clean start.”

His lack of Cabinet experience and Remain-supporting background pose big challenges for his bid, but his military career is an advantage.

The son of a High Court judge, Tugendhat had a colorful career before entering politics, having worked as a journalist, a public relations consultant in the Middle East, and an officer in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Despite being out of government, he has been influential in foreign policy. He’s criticized the government for failing to tackle the laundering of Russian money in the U.K. and the rushed withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan last year. He co-founded the China Research Group, ostensibly a caucus dedicated to better understanding of the country and its influence in the U.K. which has helped mobilize a Sinoskeptic turn in the Conservative Party.

Married to a French diplomat, he’s advocated a closer relationship with the EU after Brexit, and supported the idea of a formal mechanism with European partners to coordinate foreign policy decisions. But he’s made clear he won’t be ditching the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, controversial post-Brexit U.K. legislation that Brussels says would break international law if used.

Jeremy Hunt

A former Cabinet heavy hitter, Hunt has spent the last couple of years biding his time for another shot at the Tory leadership.

He is talked up as a “safe pair of hands” after Johnson, though his critics fear he would be too dull to appeal to the public.

A former foreign secretary who speaks Japanese, Hunt has continued to promote Britain’s return to the global stage, calling for more investment in the U.K.’s soft power and diplomatic networks. He’s also argued there are “technical solutions” to solve the issues linked to the Northern Ireland protocol — but blamed the EU for not coming to the table.

During his time as chair of the Commons health committee, Hunt penned a book on how the National Health Service could reduce the number of avoidable deaths with lessons from his time as health secretary, including a recognition of the impact lack of funding had on delivery.

However, the popularity of the MP for South West Surrey in the polls has plummeted in recent weeks and he does not enjoy the backing of the U.K.’s influential, right-leaning tabloid newspapers.

Suella Braverman

Johnson’s attorney general was the first to join the race and a surprise entrant, but she has been steadily picking up support among hardcore Brexiteer MPs.

The MP for Fareham has already thrown plenty of red meat at the right of the party, hitting out at people claiming welfare and threatening to pull Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights amid anger at its intervention on a bid to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Braverman has been punchy in her attacks on the Left, branding Twitter a “sewer of left-wing bile.”

Braverman’s Indian-born parents emigrated to Britain in the 1960s from Kenya and Mauritius, and she’s been involved in Conservative politics since her university days.

A barrister by profession, Braverman married her husband Rael in the House of Commons in 2018, and the government last year changed the law to allow her to take paid maternity leave — the first time a serving minister had done so. A tilt at the top job will do little to hurt her profile in the party.

Kemi Badenoch

Long seen as a rising star on the Tory benches, junior minister Badenoch is already polling well with Conservative members, and bagged an early endorsement from Michael Gove, a Brexiteer Cabinet veteran seen as one of Westminster’s sharpest policy brains.

Elected as the MP for Saffron Walden in 2017, Badenoch — a former software engineer — was born to parents of Nigerian origin and spent part of her childhood in Lagos.

She’s not exactly held back since launching her campaign, directly pitching herself against Johnson’s “have your cake and eat it” approach to politics, and vowing radical change to the state including a break-up of its all-powerful Treasury. She’s pitching “strong but limited government,” but vowed not to get into a “bidding war” with other candidates on tax cuts.

Beyond the policy wonkery, Badenoch’s been getting stuck into the so-called “culture wars,” hitting out at what she’s called “a zero-sum game of identity politics,” blasting ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s for political activism, and promising to “discard the priorities” of Twitter. Her launch event included a stunt in which her team covered up the venue’s gender-neutral toilets, and she’s got form in publicly beefing with journalists.

Badenoch backed leaving the European Union in 2016, and has been an iron-clad supporter of Brexit ever since.

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