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23 October 2022

Boris Johnson’s withdrawal from the leadership race leaves Rishi Sunak on the verge of power

Only Penny Mordaunt can theoretically prevent Sunak from entering No 10 this week.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Boris Johnson has pulled out of the Conservative leadership race, paving the way for Rishi Sunak to become prime minister this week.

In a statement, Johnson insisted that he had received 102 nominations from Conservative MPs – passing the threshold of 100 needed to make the members’ ballot – but said he had concluded that proceeding to a vote of Conservative members “would simply not be the right thing to do” since “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament”.

His former chancellor turned rival, Sunak, commands the support of 147 of the 357 Tory MPs, and could enter Downing Street as early as tomorrow (24 October). The only technical obstacle that remains is the third leadership contender Penny Mordaunt. The Leader of the House of Commons so far has the backing of just 24 MPs, however, and will come under pressure from colleagues to concede.

Johnson had won the support of old allies, including Nadine Dorries, James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Transport Secretary. Polls suggested he would have won among the party membership. But talks between Sunak and Johnson late on Saturday (22 October) ended without a deal and Mordaunt also refused to join forces during a phone call today.

Had Johnson become PM, “partygate” would have returned to haunt national politics. An investigation by the Commons Privilege Committee into whether he misled parliament over the scandal is ongoing, and could lead to his suspension as an MP.

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Sunak was comfortably defeated by Truss in this summer’s Conservative leadership contest but he has won respect and support from Tory MPs for predicting the economic turmoil her unfunded tax cuts caused. The former chancellor maintained a tactical silence throughout Truss’s chaotic premiership before finally announcing his candidacy on Saturday, warning that the UK faced a “profound economic crisis”.

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Unlike Truss, Sunak backed Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, and enjoys support across all wings of the Conservatives, including from Steve Baker, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch on the party’s right, and from centrist One Nation Tories such as Tom Tugendhat and Greg Clark.

Attention will now turn to which spending cuts and tax rises Sunak would impose and whether Jeremy Hunt – who was appointed Chancellor nine days ago following Kwasi Kwarteng’s sacking – will remain in his post.

If Mordaunt does not concede, Tory MPs have until 2pm tomorrow (24 October) to nominate her. Only if she secures the backing of at least 100 will she appear on the ballot against Sunak. A source from Mordaunt’s campaign said: “Penny is still running to be the leader of the Conservative Party. Penny is the unifying candidate who is most likely to keep the wings of the Conservative Party together, and polling shows that she is the most likely candidate to hold on to the seats the Conservative Party gained in 2019. Ed Balls, shadow cabinet ministers and Labour advisers have all said she is the candidate Keir Starmer fears the most.”

[See also: Political turmoil is no excuse for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories]

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