UK leadership race turns Tory colleagues into rivals

Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss during the UK’s Next Prime Minister: ITV debate at Riverside Studios on July 17, 2022 in London, England.

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The battle to become Britain’s next prime minister intensified over the weekend, as the five candidates vying for the Conservative Party leadership looked more like enemies than their colleagues in Sunday’s televised debate.

On matters ranging from taxes to converts’ rights, those looking to replace Boris Johnson clashed at various points during the leadership debate. In a rather strange scene. The contenders – many of whom were ministerial colleagues only weeks before – openly questioned each other’s record for the position, and ideological views and previous and proposed policies.

In particular, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and former Secretary of State Liz Truss, both of whom served in Johnson’s government and are among the heavy political figures remaining in the race, set a polemical tone for the debate from the outset.

Truss accused Sunak of raising taxes to their highest level in 70 years, and said the policy “will not drive economic growth”.

Sunak (one of the bookmakers’ favorites to win the lead) defended his record, saying that the Covid pandemic was a massive economic challenge and that debts had to be paid off. He also responded to what he called Truss’ “something for nothing” economics which he said amounted to socialism.

The televised debate was also an opportunity for the three lesser-known candidates – former equality minister Kimi Badenoch, foreign affairs select committee chair Tom Tugendhat and Benny Mordaunt, international trade secretary – to show the Conservative Party and the British public how they would lead the country if successful.

The debate centered heavily on the state of the economy, the cost of living crisis and inflation – and how each candidate would deal with these issues.

Other areas of contention included Brexit (I asked Sunak Truss which she regretted most: being a pro-remainer at the height of the Brexit debate, or being a liberal democracy) and transgender rights, with Benny Mordaunt denying that she supported gender identification. When she was Minister of Equality in 2019.

In this photo posted provided by ITV, Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Kimi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat and Benny Mordaunt pose with presenter Julie Echingham (in a light blue suit) during the UK’s Next Prime Minister: ITV debate at Riverside Studios on July 17, 2022 in London, England.

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The tax status of Sunak’s wife Akshata Murti, the wealthy daughter of an Indian billionaire, was also brought up in the discussion, as was the position of the candidates on Russia, with all but one saying they would not sit alongside Russian President Vladimir. Putin at the G-20 meeting.

No lost love for Johnson

The leadership contest comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned from the party leadership two weeks ago after months of controversy over his conduct while in office.

His government has been plagued by scandals about parties during the Covid-19 lockdowns and many officials have been subjected to insulting allegations.

The final straw for several MPs was the fact that Johnson appointed Chris Pincher as Deputy Whip (in charge of party discipline), despite knowledge of previous sexual misconduct allegations against him. This led to a wave of resignations, with ministers and officials saying Johnson could no longer control their trust.

When candidates hoping to replace Johnson were asked during a televised debate on Sunday whether they would give their former boss a cabinet job, none said they would.

In a sign of how tough the leadership race is, a Conservative Home poll of 851 Conservative Party members on Saturday put Badenoch ahead with 31% of the vote.

Truss came in second with 20% of the vote, Mordaunt slipped to third with 18%, Sunak came in second, and Tom Tugendhat came in fifth.

While the poll showed who is popular with Conservative Party members, only those contenders with enough votes from their fellow Parliament members will go to the final ballot to be voted on by party members.

There were eight candidates at the start of the leadership race, but the number was reduced to the current five by two votes from Tory MPs last week.

Several other votes this week will see the candidates reduced to the last two, with the finalists announced on Thursday.

Then, Conservative Party members (just under 200,000 people) will be asked to vote by mail for their preferred candidates. The winner is expected to be announced on the 3rd of September. 5.

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