Race to be Britain's next prime minister is down to two: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss

·3 min read
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, in London, to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, Wednesday, July 20, 2022. 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. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing St. in London on Wednesday. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

Britain’s Conservative Party lawmakers chose former treasury chief Rishi Sunak and current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as the two finalists Wednesday in the race to replace outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who capped his final appearance in Parliament as premier with the words “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Sunak and Truss came first and second, respectively, in the vote by Tory lawmakers. Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt came in third and was eliminated.

The race pits the man who steered Britain’s economy through the COVID-19 pandemic against the woman who has led Britain's response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The two contenders will spend the next few weeks campaigning for the votes of about 180,000 Conservative Party members around the country, who will vote by mail or online. The winner of the party leadership vote will be announced Sept. 5 and will automatically become Britain's next prime minister.

Sunak won every round of voting by lawmakers but is less popular with the party's rank and file. Truss is a favorite of the party’s right wing.

The bitter leadership campaign has exposed deep divisions among Tories at the end of Johnson’s scandal-tarnished three-year reign. Truss has branded Sunak a “socialist” for raising taxes in response to the economic damage wrought by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Sunak has hit back by accusing his rivals of peddling economic “fairy tales” to British voters as the country faces high inflation.

All the contenders — there were 11 to start — sought to distance themselves from Johnson, whose term in office began boldly in 2019 with a vow to “get Brexit done” and a resounding election victory, but is now ending in disgrace.

Johnson quit July 7 after months of ethics scandals but remains caretaker leader until the party elects his successor.

On Wednesday, he faced derisive opposition politicians and weary Conservatives at his last Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons. It was a downbeat departure, with supportive Conservative lawmakers lobbing praise and opposition politicians offering variations on “good riddance.”

Johnson extolled what he called his accomplishments — leading Britain out of the European Union and through COVID-19, and supporting Ukraine against Russia's invasion — and declared: “Mission largely accomplished, for now," before departing with Arnold Schwarzenegger's catchphrase from “Terminator 2.”

Opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer said: “I will miss the delusion.”

Johnson clung to office through months of scandals over his finances and his judgment, refusing to resign when he was fined by police over government parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules. He finally quit after a new scandal — his appointment of a politician accused of sexual misconduct — drove his ministers to resign en masse, Sunak among the first of them.

Despite remaining prime minister, Johnson has largely disappeared from the scene, even as Britain faces a summer cost-of-living crisis and labor discontent as inflation hits 9.4%.

Johnson did not attend any government emergency meetings about the heat wave that brought record temperatures of 104 degrees to Britain this week. Last week he took a ride in a Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jet, with “Top Gun”-style footage released by his office, then threw a weekend party at Chequers, the country house that comes with the prime minister’s job.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan accused Johnson of wanting to “become Tom Cruise” and urged him to resign immediately.

“We need a full-time prime minister looking after our country rather than somebody who’s checked out,” Khan said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.