LONDON (Reuters) – The five Conservative candidates still in the running to become Britain’s next prime minister will clash in a second televised debate on Sunday, expected to renew hostilities over tax policy and issues such as transgender rights.
With no clear candidate to succeed Boris Johnson, who is stepping down after a series of scandals, the battle for the next leader remains unpredictable and increasingly turbulent, revealing divisions within the ruling Conservative Party.
Former finance minister Rishi Sunak has emerged as the front-runner among the 358 Conservative MPs who will hold a further vote this week to whittle the number of candidates down to the final two.
A poll by JL Partners for the Sunday Telegraph found that almost half of Conservative voters think he would make a good prime minister ahead of his main rivals Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and junior minister Penny Mordaunt.
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However, Truss also has broad support, including among those most loyal to Johnson, and junior minister Penny Mordaunt topped a poll of the party’s 200,000 members who will ultimately choose who becomes Conservative leader and thus prime minister.
In a sign of how open the race is, a poll of party members for the Conservative Home website on Saturday showed former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch now ahead, Truss in second place and Mordaunt, currently the bookies’ favourite, slipping to the third.
It came after a fifth candidate, Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, came out on top in a viewer poll after the first televised debate on Friday.
Whoever gets the job will take on soaring inflation and low economic growth, as well as public distrust of politics after Johnson’s scandal-ridden time in office. Opinion polls also show that the Conservatives are well behind the opposition Labor Party.
In Friday’s first televised debate, there was a row over economic policy, with Sunak saying Truss’s proposed plans to roll back increases in payroll tax and corporation tax, which would cost more than £30 billion ($36 billion ) per year, “a fairy tale”.
She countered that her rival’s tax increases, which he proposed while Sunak was still in charge of the finance ministry, had undermined business investment at a time when the economy was struggling.
There have also been sharp clashes over issues of transgenderism and Johnson’s honesty.
“I have tremendous respect and admiration for all my colleagues who will be leading. And it is right that we have a passionate debate about these issues,” said Sunak, whose decision to leave the Treasury last week helped trigger a series of ministerial resignations that knocked Johnson down.
A quick poll after the debate showed that viewers thought the best performer was Tugendhat, who is unlikely to make it to the second round, followed by Sunak, with Truss in last place.
“Tom was just starting to introduce himself to the country. Three days ago he was basically unknown,” said a spokesman for Tugendhat’s campaign. “People see it and like it.”
Meanwhile, Mordaunt, who like Tugendhat is a lesser known figure to the general public, has attracted hostile attacks from rival camps because of her experience and abilities.
He says the “black ops” briefings are because others know he is the most popular person among party members.
But first they have to win over their fellow MPs, so their appearances on televised debates may prove to be particularly important.
Conservative MPs will hold another on Monday, when the candidate with the fewest votes will be eliminated, and the final two will be chosen by July 21. Party members will then vote for the winner, who will be announced on September 5.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Daniel Wallis)
Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.
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