LONDON (AP) — Conservative Party lawmakers in Britain on Thursday knocked one of the six remaining contenders out of the contest to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as front-runner Rishi Sunak worked to stave off momentum from surprise challenger Penny Mordaunt.
Attorney General Suella Braverman secured the fewest votes from her colleagues, 27, and was eliminated from the race, leaving five contenders.
Sunak, who quit as Britain’s Treasury chief last week, got the most votes, 101, with junior trade minister Mordaunt a strong second with 83. Bookmaker Ladbrokes said Mordaunt was now the favorite to win the leadership election, followed by Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who got 64 votes.
Former Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, a rising star of the party's libertarian right, and centrist backbench lawmaker Tom Tugendhat remain in the race — though Tugendhat got just 32 votes and is under pressure to drop out.
Tugendhat, however, said he would fight on and take part in televised candidates' debates on Friday, Sunday and Monday.
Further rounds of voting by the 358 Tory lawmakers will take place starting Monday until just two candidates remain.
The final two contenders will face a runoff vote by about 180,000 Conservative Party members across the country. The winner is scheduled to be announced Sept. 5 and will automatically become prime minister, without the need for a national election.
Truss is trying consolidate support from lawmakers on the party’s right, who mistrust Sunak’s high spending on support to people and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, and the tax increases he brought in as COVID-19 hammered Britain’s economy.
In a campaign launch speech, Truss cited her international experience mustering support for Ukraine in response to Russia's invasion and striking deals with other countries in her former role as trade secretary. She said she would set the British economy on an “upward trajectory” by 2024, which is the deadline for the next national election.
Sunak argues that the immediate tax cuts promised by his rivals are reckless amid the economic shockwaves from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. He said his “number one economic priority is to tackle inflation” — forecast to hit 11% later this year — before cutting taxes.
Sunak also has faced allegations he is out of touch with ordinary people’s struggles because of his wealth. He is a former investment banker, and his wife is the daughter of the billionaire founder of Indian tech company Infosys.
“I don’t judge people by their bank accounts. I judge them by their characters,” Sunak told the BBC. “And I think people can judge me by my actions over the past couple of years.”
The contest was triggered when Johnson resigned as Tory leader last week after government ministers began resigning en masse due to months of ethics scandals. He will remain in office as a caretaker prime minister until his replacement as party chief is chosen.
Truss had been seen as a front-runner, but gained fewer votes both Wednesday and Thursday than Mordaunt, who scores highly in polls of party members.
Unlike Sunak and Truss, Mordaunt didn’t hold a senior post in Johnson’s government, though she was a junior minister. An affable politician from a military family, she is widely seen as a breath of fresh air.
Despite pleas by party officials to keep the campaign upbeat, supporters of the respective contenders are busily attacking the experience and competence of the competition.
Former Brexit negotiator David Frost, a hardline euroskeptic and an ally of Truss, said Mordaunt could not be trusted to maintain the firm Brexit conditions that his wing of the Conservative party favors. He claimed that when Mordaunt was his deputy in Brexit negotiations, “she wouldn’t always deliver tough messages to the European Union when that was necessary.”
Lawmaker David Davis, a Mordaunt supporter, criticized the negative campaigning.
“It’s absolutely clockwork," he said. "You get to the point that somebody gets ahead and looks to be the real challenger, and then ... the incoming fire starts.”
Follow all of AP’s coverage of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and British politics at https://apnews.com/hub/boris-johnson
Jill Lawless, The Associated Press