Focus Turns to TV Debates in Race to Succeed UK’s Boris Johnson

(Bloomberg) -- Contenders in the race to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader and UK prime minister will battle it out in their first TV debate Friday, as a three-day pause in voting allows MPs to plot potential deals behind the scenes.

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Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and International Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt pulled ahead of their rivals in the second round of voting Thursday, leaving Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in third place. But pro-Brexit Attorney General Suella Braverman, who was knocked out, is now backing Truss in the contest, a person familiar with the matter said.

That means many of Braverman’s supporters on the right of the party are likely to follow suit, giving Truss a boost ahead of the next ballot on Monday -- and a chance to catch up with Mordaunt who has enjoyed a flying start.

The final two contenders will be in place by next Thursday, when Parliament goes on summer recess. They will then do a six-week tour of Britain to make their case to Tory members. The winner will be announced Sept. 5.

There are now five left in the contest: they include former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, who has support from the right of the party, and Tom Tugendhat, a center-right MP who chairs the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

All candidates will be hoping to make an impression with voters in a series of TV debates in the coming days, the first of which airs Friday night on Channel 4.

Truss, in particular, will want to use the platform to win over more MPs in a bid to leapfrog Mordaunt next week. Polling from YouGov on Wednesday indicated that Mordaunt, whose prospects have improved rapidly, would easily beat every other candidate in a run-off.

Meanwhile Sunak is edging closer to the 120 votes that guarantees him a place in the final two. His position could be bolstered by supporters of Tugendhat backing him in the last few days.

The contest has been marked by growing rancor between rival campaigns. Accusations of smears and lies between candidates are rife -- exactly what the Conservative Party had been trying to avoid when it sped up the contest. The risk is that the fallout reaches the wider electorate, with the Tories already trailing Labour in the polls.

Tory Spats

Attentions now turn to possible deals between contenders. On Thursday, Truss’s allies including Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey were pushing for supporters of Braverman and Badenoch to merge their campaigns and endorse the foreign secretary.

Another Truss supporter, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke, even questioned Mordaunt’s credentials for the top job, as did former Brexit negotiator David Frost.

But Mordaunt has already impressed many in the party, with her official launch in a Westminster curry house on Wednesday widely seen as a success. Speaking off the cuff, the Royal Navy reservist made a patriotic case for her leadership -- opening with a mention of the Falkland Islands and vowing to make defense the “first duty” of government.

She has promised tax cuts to help people cope with the cost of living, including cutting VAT at fuel pumps by 50% until at least April 2023, and raising basic and middle earners’ tax thresholds by inflation. Yet she has also vowed “sound finances” and pledged that debt as a percentage of GDP should “fall over time.”

Tax Fight

Meanwhile Sunak is campaigning on his record as chancellor, arguing that he’s the only one with a realistic plan to deal with the UK’s cost-of-living crisis. He’s said he wants to see tax cuts in this Parliament, but declined to say when he thought they would be possible.

“Inflation is the enemy,” Sunak told BBC Radio 4, stressing that getting it down is his “number one priority.”

His stance is a risk. He raised the tax burden to its highest level since the 1940s to pay for pandemic-era spending, a record that sits uneasily with many Tory MPs. Sunak also resisted calls to cut taxes for fear of fueling inflation, which is forecast to exceed 11% in the UK in October.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Sunak’s approach, Truss vowed to “deliver a different economic plan that is credible” at her launch event Thursday. “We cannot have business-as-usual economic management,” she said.

She reiterated her view that the government shouldn’t immediately address the UK’s bulging debt load amassed during the pandemic, saying it should be paid over a longer period of time, akin to a war debt. She also vowed to cancel a planned rise in corporation tax.

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