Could Britain have a new prime minister as early as this afternoon?
Rishi Sunak has, at the time of writing, more than 160 MPs supporting his bid to succeed Liz Truss as Tory leader, while his rival, Penny Mordaunt, is yet to break 30. With the threshold for the members’ ballot set at 100, the former chancellor is strongly favoured to win, after Boris Johnson pulled out of the race last night.
Watching Johnson’s desperate efforts to get his old job back has been fascinating. The interest rate demanded by investors buying government gilts rose sharply as he became the bookies’ favourite on his dash back from the Caribbean; the markets panicked over the return of his chaotic leadership.
Johnson’s campaign made a highly dubious claim on Saturday that he had 100 backers, but few were prepared to go on record (in the end Team Boris declared they had 102, admitting that, despite 24 hours of phone-banking, briefing and bigging up Johnson myths, they had signed up a maximum of two additional allies).
Attempts at striking deals with Mordaunt and Sunak were roundly rejected amid reports some MPs would resign the whip if Johnson was returned to No 10. And finally, Johnson convinced James Cleverly and Nadhim Zahawi to go public with their endorsements just before he exited the contest, leaving his two closest allies facing ridicule and contempt.
But what would be a bracing experience for most politicians does not seem to have deterred the man who would be “world king”. Johnson blithely signed off his statement confirming he was out: “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”
If Sunak is the only candidate to meet the 100-MP target, today will effectively be a coronation. However, there could be a final twist to the tale. Mordaunt backers told the BBC this morning they were “very confident” she had 100 and that “Penny will be on the ballot”.
It remains to be seen whether pressure from Sunak-backers will cause Mordaunt to drop out this morning, with or without the numbers, or whether she will push for a members’ vote.
Whoever becomes prime minister will not be celebrating long. Truss’s disastrous mini-Budget has created a £40bn hole in the public finances, meaning there will be tax rises and spending cuts. There are more than 60,000 cases in the court backlog and the new Metropolitan Police chief, Mark Rowley, has said a growing number of criminals are pleading not guilty in the hope their trial is delayed or dropped. The NHS is braced for its toughest ever winter, with Covid resurgent, waiting lists and A&E delays at record highs, and 100,000 staff vacancies.
Strikingly, none of the candidates have faced scrutiny over what they plan to do with power. Would Sunak look to, say, the defence budget (due to rise to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030), levelling-up projects or foreign aid for savings? If he plans to break the promise he made as chancellor to raise benefits in line with inflation, there is no way for the public to hold him accountable. MPs have been thrashing out these all-important arguments behind closed doors.