Ex-finance minister Rishi Sunak, the favourite to become Britain’s next prime minister, kicked off his campaign on Tuesday promising “honesty”, in a increasingly testy and divisive battle to succeed Boris Johnson.
An initial 11 candidates put their names forward to become leader of the governing Conservative Party and Britain’s next premier after Johnson was forced to say he would step down when support drained from him over a series of scandals.
Only those who get nominations from 20 of their 358 Conservative colleagues in parliament on Tuesday will go forward to the first vote on Wednesday. The field will be then be quickly whittled down a final two, with Conservative Party members making the final decision.
Transport minister Grant Shapps became the first to end his bid, throwing his support behind Sunak, whose resignation helped provoke the revolt by ministers and Conservative lawmakers that forced Johnson to say he would resign last week.
The new leader faces a busy in-tray as well as falling opinion poll support.
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.
As the contest heated up, rival campaigns stepped up private criticism of each other and pointed to either financial or other questions hanging over their opponents.
With most candidates saying they would cut taxes if they win, Sunak, the current bookmakers’ favourite, has sought to portray himself as the serious candidate, promising “grown up” honesty “not fairy tales”.
“It is not credible to promise lots more spending and lower taxes,” said Sunak,
As finance minister, Sunak set Britain on course to have its biggest tax burden since the 1950s, and the other prime ministerial hopefuls have turned their fire on him on tax, with most saying they would oversee cuts immediately.
Sunak said he did not want to distance himself from the fiscal decisions he made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Whilst that may be politically inconvenient for me, it is also the truth. As is the fact that once we’ve gripped inflation, I will get the tax burden down,” he said. “It is a question of when, not if.”