LONDON — The fractious race to replace Boris Johnson as Britain’s prime minister entered an unpredictable endgame Tuesday as three candidates for Conservative Party leader were left battling for the two spots in a run-off vote.
Kemi Badenoch, a previously little-known lawmaker who has become a rising star of the party’s right wing, was eliminated from the contest after receiving the fewest votes from Conservative lawmakers in their fourth round of voting.
After the latest vote knocked Badenoch out, former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak led the shrinking field of candidates and had all but secured his place in the final pair. Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who were neck and neck behind him, will now scramble to woo Badenoch’s supporters before a final elimination vote on Wednesday.
All are running to succeed Johnson, who quit as party leader this month after snowballing ethics scandals sparked mass resignations in his government.
The two finalists will go to a runoff vote by all 180,000 members of the Conservative Party, with a winner expected to be announced Sept. 5.
Sunak got 118 votes on Tuesday, two short of the number that would guarantee he is one of the two candidates Conservative members can choose. Mordaunt received 92 votes, Truss 86 and Badenoch 59.
The remaining candidates are also courting supporters of Tom Tugendhat, an influential lawmaker who was eliminated from the contest on Monday.
Both Mordaunt and Badenoch tweeted praise for Tugendhat after Monday’s vote. Truss promised to increase military spending from 2% to 3% of gross domestic product - a key issue for Tugendhat, a former soldier who chairs the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
The bitter campaign has exposed deep divisions in the Conservative Party at the end of Johnson’s scandal-tarnished reign. Opponents have rounded on Sunak for raising taxes in response to the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Sunak has hit back that his rivals are peddling economic “fairy tales.”
In a contest where every vote counts, the electorate of 358 Conservative legislators was reduced Tuesday to 357. Tobias Ellwood, a Johnson critic who supports Mordaunt, was suspended from the party group in Parliament for failing to vote in a confidence motion on Monday.
The government easily won the vote thanks to a big Conservative majority, but Ellwood was punished for not cutting short a trip to Moldova to return for it.
Ellwood, who heads Parliament’s Defense Committee, said he had been unable to return “due to unprecedented disruption both here and in the U.K.,” where a heat wave is adding to summer travel chaos.
“I am very sorry to lose the whip but will now continue my meetings in Ukraine promoting the prime minister’s efforts here and specifically seeking to secure the reopening of Odesa port - so vital grain exports can recommence,” Ellwood said.
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