Boris Johnson was on Sunday battling to win enough support to make what would be a stunning comeback as Britain’s prime minister, as senior Conservative politicians declared their support for former finance minister Rishi Sunak.
The two men have become the early favorites to replace Liz Truss, who announced her resignation Thursday just six weeks into a term that threw Britain into political and economic turmoil.
Sunak declared on Sunday morning that he would be standing in the contest. In a tweet, he wrote, “The United Kingdom is a great country but we face a profound economic crisis. That’s why I am standing to be Leader of the Conservative Party and your next Prime Minister. I want to fix our economy, unite our Party and deliver for our country.”
The former chancellor of the exchequer has already reached the 100-nomination threshold to make it to the voting stage, while Johnson’s allies said the former PM had returned from a holiday in the Caribbean with the intention of joining the race, PA news reported, but he has yet to declare he is standing.
A runoff between the two men could prove divisive for the ruling Conservative party, not least because many of Johnson’s supporters blame Sunak’s resignation in July for sparking the downfall of his government. Some outlets have speculated that the two men could strike some kind of deal.
The BBC reported that a meeting took place between Johnson and Sunak but “it wasn’t disclosed what they discussed,” while Britain’s PA Media news agency reported the two “were said to be locked in talks late into the evening” Saturday.
Sky News, meanwhile, referred to the meeting as a “secret summit.”
Sunak and Johnson, if he decides to run, will be up against Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, who said Sunday she regretted the so-called “mini budget” that led to economic turmoil in Britain and the resignation of Truss.
“I very much regret the mini-budget … I raised concerns even before I was in cabinet,” Mordant told the BBC in a Sunday interview, adding there were details about the budget “the cabinet was not aware of.”
The last time the Conservatives held a leadership race – following the demise of Johnson’s government – Truss came first, Sunak second and Mordaunt third.
Graham Brady, the Conservative official responsible for the process, has said any candidate must receive at least 100 nominations from the party’s MPs by 2 p.m. local time Monday.
The threshold effectively narrows the field of potential candidates to a maximum of three as the party has 357 MPs.
If only one candidate meets that threshold, they will automatically become leader. Otherwise, the remaining candidates will be put to an online vote by Conservative Party members which will close on Friday October 28.
Truss resigned on Thursday, just six weeks into her disastrous term that pitched Britain deep into political and economic turmoil. Her successor will be the fifth PM to lead the country since it voted for Brexit in 2016.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, renewed calls for a general election on Sunday, after claiming people are “fed up to the back teeth” with the Conservative leadership and the consequences of their government’s decisions.
“There is a choice to be made. We need a general election! Let the public into decide… Do they want to continue with this utter chaos, or do they want stability under a Labour government?” Starmer asked during a BBC interview.
Former Home Secretary Priti Patel on Saturday became one of the most high-profile supporters of Johnson in his quest to become PM. “Boris has the mandate to deliver our elected manifesto and a proven track record getting the big decisions right,” she said in a tweet.
But his possible return to the top job has split opinions within the Conservative Party, with many lawmakers horrified at the prospect of a second Johnson premiership.
Johnson’s former deputy prime minister and foreign secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC, “we cannot go backwards” and pointed out that Johnson still faces a probe into the so-called partygate scandal into illegal gatherings in Downing Street.
The former PM is expected to appear in the next few weeks before the Commons Privileges Committee which is investigating whether he misled Parliament over the parties, which could potentially see him suspended or expelled as an MP.
CNN’s Mia Alberti and Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report.