Foreign Secretary Liz Truss eyes runoff with Sunak as UK Conservatives vote again

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – On Wednesday July 20, Tory MPs will decide which two candidates will face off in the battle to replace Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss now the favorite to join the former minister of Finance Rishi Sunak in the final ballot.

Mr Sunak topped a fourth round of Tory lawmakers on Tuesday with 118 votes, just two from the threshold that would guarantee the former Chancellor of the Exchequer a place in the second round.

But it was the battle for second place that intensified, as Ms Truss closed the gap to Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, who was runner-up to Mr Sunak in every round of voting but is now losing speed. Momentum and math now appear to favor the Foreign Secretary in the race for No 10.

The result of the fifth and final round of voting for Conservative MPs will be announced at 4 p.m. (11 p.m. Singapore) on Wednesday. At stake is a chance for the candidates to present their case to the Conservative Party base over the rest of the summer. These members will vote for their next leader – and prime minister, with an announcement scheduled for September 5.

Ahead of the vote, Ms Truss and Ms Mordaunt are battling to win the backing of the 59 all-important MPs who backed Kemi Badenoch, the party’s right-wing candidate who was eliminated on Tuesday. The Minister of Foreign Affairs now follows Ms Mordaunt by only six votes and seems better able to convince these MPs.

Supporters of Ms Truss and Ms Mordaunt were quick to praise Ms Badenoch, who served in several junior ministerial posts without ever serving in cabinet.

Ms Mordaunt hailed Ms Badenoch’s ‘fresh thinking and bold policies’. But the reality is that it will be a challenge for her to win Ms Badenoch’s many supporters. The trade minister is from the centrist One Nation wing of the Conservative Party, and Ms Badenoch is decidedly right-wing. The two suitors have argued in televised debates over issues including Ms Mordaunt’s record on transgender rights.

Ms Badenoch is also seen as a close ally of Mr Sunak, and some of her supporters, such as former Leveling Up secretary Michael Gove, could succeed her. Ms Badenoch herself could make an announcement on who she supports ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

If Ms Badenoch’s supporters are split largely between Mr Sunak and Ms Truss, then the Foreign Secretary should be able to make up her shortfall to Mordaunt and clinch second place.

Tactical Voting

But the voting intentions of Tory MPs in leadership races are always complex and unpredictable, and there have been accusations of tactical voting and vote lending in recent days.

It is possible that Mr Sunak has built such a lead in terms of supporters that he can lend votes to whoever he perceives as the weakest candidate, most likely Ms Mordaunt. Mr Sunak’s team denies any gambling and insists they fight for every vote.

Ms Truss’ improved hopes of reaching the bottom two were reflected in the betting odds offered by UK bookmakers after Tuesday’s vote. Ladbrokes made her the very favorite to become the eventual winner, with Mr Sunak just behind at 5-4. Ms Mordaunt, who only a few days ago was the favorite herself, now has a chance to 7 to 1.

The latest YouGov poll of Tory members on Tuesday suggested Mr Sunak would lose to Ms Truss or Ms Mordaunt, although members’ views appear volatile and could easily change in the next campaign.