The battle to secure the top job comes after one of the most tumultuous periods in modern British political history, when more than 50 government ministers and aides quit, denouncing Johnson’s character, integrity and inability to tell the truth.
The new leader will also have to reverse evaporating support for the Conservatives. A Savanta ComRes poll this week put the opposition Labour Party at 43 per cent support compared with 28 per cent for the Conservatives: its biggest poll lead since 2013.
The succession contest has already become personal. Former finance minister Sajid Javid, another of the candidates, criticised what he called “poisonous gossip” and “attack memos” delivered by some colleagues over the weekend.
“This isn’t the House of Cards or the Game of Thrones, and the people who are here just because they enjoy the game, they are in the wrong place,” he said. “This is a time for pulling together, not apart.”
The issue of tax cuts was fast becoming the central battle in the race with nearly all of the candidates promising to cut business or personal taxes.
Setting out her pitch, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who has held ministerial jobs in a number of government departments including trade, justice and the treasury, said she would reverse the recent rise in National Insurance contributions and signalled a cut to corporation tax.
Fellow contenders Jeremy Hunt and Javid both pledged to cut corporation tax, while Mordaunt has promised to cut fuel duty.
Sunak is the early frontrunner, but he is the only candidate who has played down the prospect of imminent tax cuts, saying the adoption of “comforting fairy tales” would leave future generations worse off.
This has prompted his rivals to attack his economic record after the tax burden rose to the highest level since the 1950s. One lawmaker confirmed that a dossier criticising Sunak’s record had been circulating on lawmaker WhatsApp groups.
Nadhim Zahawi, who was appointed finance minister in the turmoil of last week, said he was also being targeted by rivals after media reports raised questions about the former businessman’s personal finances and tax record.
Whoever wins the leadership race will be faced with a daunting in-tray. Britain’s economy is facing rocketing inflation, high debt, and low growth, with people coping with the tightest squeeze on their finances in decades, all set against a backdrop of an energy crunch exacerbated by the war in Ukraine which has sent fuel prices soaring.
On the issue of immigration, all the main leadership candidates have pledged to keep the government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, showing how the party has moved to the right of the political spectrum in recent years.
Other candidates include Attorney-General Suella Braverman, foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat, and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
Labour leader Keir Starmer in a speech took aim at an “arms race of fantasy economics” from the leadership candidates, claiming that more than £200 billion ($353 billion) of commitments made by them over the weekend were unfunded.
The chair of the party’s 1922 committee of backbenchers, Graham Brady, set out the timetable on Tuesday morning (AEST), as follows:
July 12: Nominations, first eliminations
Nominations to be new leader of the Conservative Party formally open, and also close. Candidates must have the support of at least 20 lawmakers to advance.
July 13: More candidates eliminated
In this first round of voting, candidates must have the backing of at least 30 lawmakers to advance.
July 21: Further ballots
Brady said that there would be further rounds of voting by Conservative lawmakers until a final two was reached, saying it was likely the final two would be selected by early next week.
July 21: Parliamentary recess
Lawmakers on the 1922 committee have said July 21 is the de facto deadline for the final two candidates to be selected by Conservative lawmakers, as it is when the House of Commons breaks for summer recess. Brady told Sky News they would “certainly” have the final two by July 21.
July–September: The run-off
The two candidates campaign and hold hustings among Conservative party members to win their votes. The members vote by post. Brady said he wanted an assurance that those who reached the final two would not drop out, to ensure Conservative members would have a say.
September 5: New prime minister announced
The Conservative Party announces who has been elected as the new leader of the party by members. As they will command a parliamentary majority, they will consequently become the next prime minister.