Tories plan to narrow race with tougher rules for prime minister candidates

Joe Mayes, Alex Wickham and Emily Ashton
Bloomberg News

LONDON —The UK Conservative Party is planning to narrow down a wide field of contenders to be Britain’s next prime minister by requiring candidates to have the initial support of 20 Tory MPs.

The threshold, and the wider rules of the contest, still need to be signed off by the Conservative Party’s board, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The 1922 Committee of rank-and-file Tory MPs, which oversees the initial rounds of voting, had a meeting to discuss the rules late Monday.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is currently leading the field in terms of publicly declared support from MPs, with 38 backers, according to a spreadsheet run by the Guido Fawkes news website. Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat, chair of Parliament’s foreign affairs select committee, come next.

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In addition to the initial support threshold, the plan is also for the candidate with the lowest number of votes in each round to be knocked out, along with anyone getting fewer than 30 votes, one of the people said.

When Johnson was selected in 2019, each candidate needed at least eight nominations – but this is being increased to reduce the field and ensure two finalists are picked by July 21, when Parliament goes on summer recess.

It effectively means contenders must have the backing of about 5% of the parliamentary Tory party to enter the race. Rivalries are already becoming heated, with barbs and allegations being flung around.

Former Health Secretary Sajid Javid said “poisonous gossip” is being shared. “I’m sorry to say that, looking at some of the stories in the weekend press, it’s not been our best start,” he said at his campaign launch event, adding that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” unless they pull together.

Tory MPs use voting rounds that could start as soon as Wednesday to select a final two. Based on current declared support, only Sunak, Mordaunt and Tugendhat meet the 20 MP threshold – but only about half of Conservative MPs have pledged their allegiance, so the picture will change.

Conservative Party members pick the ultimate winner, after the finalists make a six-week tour of the UK over the summer. A latest survey of readers of the ConservativeHome website – popular among grassroots Tories – placed Mordaunt as the most popular candidates, with former Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch in second.

Johnson quit as Conservative leader last week after a dramatic mass revolt among his ministers over a series of scandals that have overshadowed his three-year premiership. He’s vowed to stay on as prime minister until his successor is announced, and has appointed a caretaker government which he insists will not “make major changes of direction.”

There are 11 declared candidates so far including Sunak, his successor Nadhim Zahawi, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and ex-Health Ministers Jeremy Hunt and Javid. The winner will be announced by September.

A protestor shouts outside parliament during elections for a new executive of the Conservative 1922 committee, which helps set party rules in London, Monday, July 11, 2022. The 1922 committee will immediately meet once the vote has taken place to decide on the rules of the road for the Conservative leadership contest. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Contenders are rushing to better each other’s pledges to cut taxes to win support, after Johnson’s government lifted the overall tax burden to its highest level since the 1940s to pay for massive pandemic spending.

Javid said he feared that in recent years the party’s “reputation on most values and policies has slid away,” and vowed to cut taxes to “kick start growth.”

Meanwhile, Attorney General Suella Braverman and Chancellor Zahawi made speeches to the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group.

Braverman, an ardent Brexiteer, pledged “radical tax cuts” and warned that Britain spends too much on welfare payments and wants the UK to leave the European Court of Human Rights. Zahawi told the event he would cut the basic rate of income tax, abolish VAT on energy bills and reverse a planned rise in corporation tax.

“Tax as a percentage of GDP will fall year-on-year if I become prime minister,” Zahawi said. “People need to keep more of their money, and let them choose how to spend it.”

Other contenders include Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Rehman Chishti, who became a Foreign Office minister last week. Home Secretary Priti Patel is also weighing a run.