Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak hold talks over UK leadership race
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, contenders to be the next UK prime minister, held face-to-face talks Saturday to discuss the Conservative leadership contest, according to people familiar with the discussions, seeking a deal that would eliminate the need to take a potentially divisive runoff vote between them to party members.
The former prime minister and ex-chancellor spoke as some Tory MPs called on them to put aside their differences and thrash out a deal that would see one of them take over as premier and the other serve in a senior cabinet position, the people said, declining to be identified because the matter is private.
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The prospect of the pair running on a joint ticket represents yet another unimaginable twist in what’s been a chaotic year in UK politics.
The chances of a deal were previously considered almost impossible due to the fallout between the two men, the people said. They became bitter enemies this summer when Sunak resigned as finance minister of Johnson’s administration, a move that helped trigger his downfall.
The former premier is currently trailing behind Sunak with far fewer public endorsements from Members of Parliament, though his campaign team claimed he has over 100 privately backing him.
Sunak scored a notable win on Saturday with the support of Kemi Badenoch, the International Trade Secretary and a key figure on the party’s right.
Penny Mordaunt, who appears to have less support than either, is the only person to have publicly declared their candidacy.
Liz Truss’s exit after just 44 days as prime minister on Thursday triggered a speedy leadership race, one that could theoretically see Johnson and Sunak square off. The prospect of the duo clashing in public over policy has alarmed some of the party’s bigger names.
Lord Frost, Johnson’s Brexit minister, said the party should “move on and get behind Sunak.” And in comments that largely echoed those of former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, ex-party chairman Lord Ashcroft tweeted that Johnson should sit out the contest and back his former chancellor.
In brokering a potential agreement, Sunak could point to his support among MPs as evidence he’s most likely to be able to command a majority in parliament and unite the deeply divided party. But Johnson, if he’s sure he has enough support to pass the 100-strong threshold to enter the contest, may overlook this since he’s still popular with grassroots members, who are set to get a final say in the race.
Even though he remains popular with Tory members, there’s doubt whether Johnson would be able to unify his party after leaving office only seven weeks ago.
Many MPs are still angry that his shortcomings -- including breaking the law during pandemic lockdowns -- cost the party support in the polls. Truss has since driven that slump to a record low.
Roger Gale, a Tory lawmaker since 1983, broke cover to tell Times Radio he’d stand as an independent MP rather than serve under a Johnson government again.
It’s possible Johnson and Sunak could offer top government positions to get the other’s endorsements -- though their disagreements over economic policy just months ago cast doubt over whether they’d want to work together again. Even if one opts not to run, whoever’s still standing would probably have to beat Mordaunt.
So far, Johnson has picked up support from the right of the party, which mostly backed Truss in the last race. Sunak appeals to more moderate factions, though he has picked up some support from MPs who were previously behind Truss.
Badenoch became the most prominent cabinet member to support him and her decision has the potential to sway the votes of others, particularly among hardcore Brexiteers.
She called Sunak the “serious, honest leader we need,” in an article for the Sunday Times.
“We are very different people with a difference in approach on numerous issues, but I believe he understands the necessity for unity and bringing others along on the journey before making difficult decisions,” Badenoch wrote.
A maximum of three Tory MPs will be able to run, as the party has set a threshold of 100 MPs for candidates to even get on the ballot paper, and there are a total of 357 MPs in the party. MPs have until 2 p.m. Monday to vote for their preferred candidate.
The list will be whittled down to two contenders the same day if there are three candidates who pass the required threshold.
Assuming two candidates are still in the race after Monday, if one does not pull out, grassroots members have until Friday morning to vote.
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